Even the most committed of culinary explorers often find the truffle an acquired taste. Part nut, part mushroom, part sweaty sock, the subtle but insistent flavour of this subterranean fungus inspires something approaching gastronomic hysteria among its army of admirers. Nowhere is truffle worship more fervent than in the Croatian province of Istria, a beautiful region where medieval hill towns sit above bottle-green forests. Summer is the season for the delicately flavoured white truffle, but it’s the more pungent autumnal black truffle that will really bring out the gourmet in you. A few shavings of the stuff delicately sprinkled over pasta has an overpowering, lingering effect on your tastebuds.
The fungus-hunting season is marked by a plethora of animated rural festivals. Biggest of the lot is held in the normally sleepy town of Buzet, where virtually everyone who is anyone in Istria gathers on a mid-September weekend to celebrate the Buzetska Subotina, or “Buzet Saturday”. As evening approaches, thousands of locals queue for a slice of the world’s biggest truffle omelette, fried up in a mind-bogglingly large pan on the town’s main square. With the evening rounded out with folk dancing, fireworks, alfresco pop concerts and large quantities of biska – the local mistletoe-flavoured brandy – this is one small-town knees-up that no one forgets in a hurry.
Buzet’s reputation as Istria’s truffle capital has made this otherwise bland provincial town a magnet for in-the-know foodie travellers. The revered fungus plays a starring role in the dishes at Toklarija, a converted oil-pressing shed in the nearby hilltop settlement of Sovinjsko Polje, whose head chef changes the menu nightly in accordance with what’s fresh in the village. One of the best meals you’re likely to eat is in the neighbouring hamlet of Vrh, where the family-run Vrh Inn serves fat rolls of home-made pasta stuffed with truffles, mushrooms, asparagus and other locally gathered goodies. With the ubiquitous mistletoe brandy also on the menu, a warm glow of satisfaction is guaranteed.
The Buzet tourist office (www.buzet.hr) has details of the Buzetska Subotina festival. Toklarija, Sovinjsko Polje 11, +385 (0) 52 663 031.