Croatia’s high hopes for its white truffles

LIVADE, Croatia (Reuters) – They are hard to find and almost impossible to cultivate, but for Giancarlo Zigante, truffles are putting Croatia on the global gastronomy map. The ugly tubers can fetch more than 3,000 euros per kilo and are displayed once a year at a truffle fair in the tiny village of Livade in the heart of the Istrian peninsula. Its pungent odor and unique flavor may be an acquired taste but, judging by visitors from home and abroad who flocked to the Tuberfest at the weekend, its market potential is huge. «We only started promoting Croatian white truffles a few years ago. Until then, people did not realize Croatia had truffles,» Zigante said in front of his luxurious restaurant that offers all kinds of dishes sprinkled with truffles. The truffle fair, initiated by Zigante, who is a native of Livade, showcases other Istrian delicacies, like homemade brandy, honey, olive oil and cheese, but the highlight is the King Truffle contest. This year’s winner weighed around 0.8 kilos. Zigante’s own find from a few years ago, a 1.3-kilo truffle the size of a child’s head, still holds the top spot in the Guinness Book of World Records. White truffles are more expensive than the black variety, both of which are found in Istria. The biggest producers are Italy and France, where they have been a delicacy since the 17th century, but Zigante said he was striving for global recognition. «We think the Croatian truffles have the best and strongest smell and last longer. Demand is huge; we are selling on European and US markets,» said Zigante, who no longer hunts for truffles himself. Using sniffer dogs Instead, he buys them from local hunters who trace them with sniffer dogs between October and January, when they are in season. For many locals, truffles are a considerable source of income and good dogs are invaluable. «A good truffle dog can smell the truffle underground from 100 meters away. A good dog has no price, no one here would ever sell their dog,» said Ivica Kalcic, who owns a ranch and several hunting dogs. The dogs work in pairs – one locates the truffle and the other digs. They set off before dawn, at 4 a.m., «before the air is too hot, so they can breathe more easily» and run through the woods for several hours, Kalcic said. A truffle, often no bigger than a nut, usually grows in the roots of oak and willow trees. There have been attempts to mass-produce it but the best ones are still found in the wild. Kalcic also has a wild boar named Gica, trained to hunt for truffles. «Gica is excellent but I take him out only sometimes, as an attraction, as boars don’t mix well with dogs,» Kalcic said. And the secret of using truffles in cooking? «The most important thing is to use ingredients of neutral taste, pasta, polenta, eggs, mild sauces with cream, a pinch of salt and white pepper. The truffle is then grated over it, so its own aroma dominates,» said Damir Modrusan, a chef at Zigante’s restaurant.

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