Croatia: Hunt out an authentic flavour

First prize in last year's Bradt/Independent on Sunday travel-writing competition was a trip to Istria – and the chance to write about it in these pages. Here, winner Cal Flyn takes a gastronomic tour

Ivan Karlic has been hunting for truffles in the forests of Istria, the heart-shaped Croatian peninsula, since he was 10 years old. He inherited his passion from his mother Radmila, who in turn was initiated in the art by her own father in the woods around their home. The family estate sits in a valley below the medieval hilltop town of Motovun, in a region world-renowned for the quality and size of these fragrant fungi. The largest truffle ever known, weighing in at 1.5kg, was found in these woods.

Ivan has Blackie, a wire-haired mongrel, in tow. Blackie has been specially trained over months and years to sniff out truffles among the leaf litter and soft, damp earth. As soon as we're in the shade of the trees, she is on the hunt, nose skimming the ground, entirely alert. Ivan follows close behind, ready to leap in as soon as a truffle is detected. "Otherwise," he warns me, "she'll snap it up in one bite."

When we sit down for brunch up at the farmhouse I think I know how she feels. There is sheep's cheese with paper-thin truffle shavings, scrambled eggs stirred through with grated black truffle, smoked sausage studded with chopped truffle and crusty white bread – all washed down with a shot of mistletoe brandy. It is the first meal in my gastronomic tour of Istria's lush interior, a gourmet's paradise in the image of Tuscany or Provence where local producers compete for the most impressive accolades and top-class restaurants jostle for space in cobbled courtyards.

As well as black truffles, which can be harvested year round, the more unusual white truffle can be found on higher ground in Istria between September and January, and sells for up to €10,000 per kilo. The start of the white truffle season is celebrated each year in nearby Buzet, the self-declared "City of Truffles" where the Festival of Subotina is held. The celebration involves a giant omelette containing two thousand eggs and 10kg of truffles which is cooked in the main square on the second Saturday in September.

Istrian truffles with pasta Istrian truffles with pasta Grapes and olives also thrive in Istria's Mediterranean climate. I take a trip to the Kozlovic vineyard outside Momjan, where head vintner Gianfranco Kozlovic is at the forefront of the reinvention of the Croatian wine industry. "During Communist times [when Croatia was part of the former Yugoslavia] the emphasis was not so much on producing quality as quantity," he told me. "We would simply fill jugs of wine from the tap to be drunk at home. So, Teran, the typical Istrian red wine, in particular did not have a good reputation."

But after the bloody break-up of Yugoslavia, the so-called "Wine Spring" took hold. Gianfranco became one of a new generation of Croatian winemakers who were prepared to experiment, stepping away from traditional methods and embracing hi-tech gadgetry. Recently, he let his imagination run wild, sketching out the design for a brand new winery, now made real as a sculptural stack of polished concrete full of bleeping, blinking displays that would not look out of place as a Bond villain's lair.

The Kozlovic estate now produces around 200,000 bottles of its trademark white Malvazija and reserves the exclusive "St Lucia" label for the best vintages – 2009 and 2011 were particularly good years. The sweet Muskat is also highly regarded.

Milan Matkovic is making a similar splash in the world of olive oil. The former ad man returned to his tiny village of Pagubice, near Pazin, after a high-flying career in Paris. Istrian olive oil has the distinctive aroma of freshly cut grass, an unexpected and refreshing taste, perfectly suited for dunking cubes of feta or even drizzling over vanilla ice cream.Milan's oil mill, only four years old, has already racked up a number of honours for its Grimalda extra-virgin oil, including a gold medal last year in the international AVPA oil-producers' awards.

A short drive from Pazin through rolling hills, past tangled vines and hazelnut copses, I discover Toklarija, an intimate, six-table slow-food restaurant in a converted 16th-century oil mill. Over five courses and the best part of three hours, chef Nevio Sirotic presents me with the region's best offerings: his ever-changing menu is based on what's in season and is almost entirely locally sourced. Tendrils of wild asparagus, carpaccio of beef, the omnipresent truffle and a curious baked dessert whose thin crust turned out to be filled entirely, gloriously, by liquid chocolate.

"Incredible," I gasp at the end. "Where did you train?"

"With my mother," says Nevio, po-faced. "I learnt from the best."

Also keeping it in the family are the Skokos at Batelina, a startlingly good seafood restaurant in Banjole, on the southern tip of the peninsula, where the father catches the fish, the mother and mother-in-law cook, and the son is maître d' ("a situation that is better for you than it is for me, I think"). For fresh, imaginative dishes – shark's liver and red snapper carpaccio, followed by a cauldron of mixed shellfish – in unpretentious surroundings, it is hard to beat.

Prices may have risen in Croatia since it joined the EU last year, but bargains are still to be had when buying directly from the farm, mill or winery. I fly back with a suitcase full of truffle jam, hazelnut oil and individual preserved truffles in jars. The price? Nine euros from our friend Milan, £60 in the deli at home.

Travel essentials

Getting there

Cal Flyn travelled with Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com), which flies from Stansted to Pula from £59. Alternatively, Jet2 (0871 226 1737; jet2.com) has flights from Edinburgh, Leeds/Bradford and Manchester.

Staying there

Hotel Kastel in Motovun (00 385 52 681 607; hotel-kastelmotovun.hr) has doubles from HRK806 (£85), including breakfast eating and drinking there Karlic Tartufi (00 385 52 667 304; karlictartufi.hr); Kozlovic (00 385 52 779 177; kozlovic.hr); Uljara Zlatni Brig (00 385 52 684 050; uljarazlatnibrig.com.hr).

More information

croatia.hr; istra.hr

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Arts and Entertainment
Under the skin: Sarah Kane in May 1998
theatreThe story behind a new season of Sarah Kane plays
Arts and Entertainment
Preening: Johnny Depp in 'Mortdecai'
filmMortdecai becomes actor's fifth consecutive box office bomb
Sport
Bradford City's reward for their memorable win over Chelsea is a trip to face either Sunderland or Fulham (Getty)
football
News
Lars Andersen took up archery in his mid thirties
video
Voices
Focus E15 Mothers led a protest to highlight the lack of affordable housing in London
voicesLondon’s housing crisis amounts to an abuse of human rights, says Grace Dent
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Tour Drivers - UK & European

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity to join a is a...

    Old Royal Naval College: ORNC Visitor Experience Volunteer

    Unpaid voluntary work: Old Royal Naval College: Join our team of friendly volu...

    Recruitment Genius: Customer Service / Sales Assistant

    £8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This airport parking organisation are looking...

    Recruitment Genius: PCV Bus Drivers

    £8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Do you enjoy bus driving and are looking for ...

    Day In a Page

    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project