[dropcap size=small]L[/dropcap]ola races ahead, darting around and sniffing the base of oak trees.
I watch the three-year-old cocker spaniel as we tread deeper into Croatia’s dense Motovun forest, which is now shedding its greens for the yellows and burnt oranges of autumn.
It is a cool October morning, prime season for white truffles, hunted mainly between September and November.
Lola barks wildly and begins clawing the ground frenetically.
“Pokaze!” Mr Valter, our truffle hunter hollers repeatedly. “Pokaze, Lola!” (Show, he is saying in Croatian.)
We quicken our pace. Mr Valter restrains Lola and her trailing one-year-old puppy with one hand, adeptly excavating the moist, dark soil with the other using a small shovel.
“This is like fishing, but in a forest,” remarks a fellow traveller.
Truffles grow underground and their scent is detected by specially-trained dogs.
“White truffle,” Mr Valter proclaims as he uncovers a walnut-sized bulb. “Small but whole.”
The truffle, I cannot help but think, looks like something the dog excreted, rather than discovered.
Then I catch a whiff of the fungus – pungent but sensual, sulphurous, musky and highly intoxicating.
The white truffle – or tuber magnatum pico, prized and priciest among truffles – is what has drawn me to Istria, a heart-shaped peninsular in the north-western corner of Croatia.
While the Istrian truffle is recognised to be of a superior grade, the culture here is more down-to-earth than that of more renowned markets such as Alba in Italy or Perigord in France.
Croatia is famous for its alluring coastal cities by sapphire waters, such as Dubrovnik, but over the next three days, I will realise the wonders of straying beyond the beaten track to discover Istria’s hilly, wooded interior.
And it is much more than truffles. Istria has been likened to “Tuscany 50 years ago”, and I can see why.
The peninsula offers a wealth of scenic rolling landscapes, mediaeval towns surrounded by thick stone walls perched atop hills, as well as high-quality wines, esteemed olive oils, and certainly, truffles – locally considered its “gastronomic diamond” – all of which are raising Istria’s profile as a gourmet destination without the crowds, for now.
HILLS AND HAMLETS
“A feast for the eyes, isn’t it,” remarks Mr Zlatko, the driver for this trip, as we travel through Istria’s bucolic rolling hills, patchwork of fertile plains and babbling streams that cut through lush valleys.
He says his English is not good – although I beg to differ – and shares that he grew up speaking the Istrian dialect, which is heavily influenced by Italian and bits of German.
Istria’s history is complex and fractured, with much of Europe’s culture – including the Roman, Slavic and Germanic kingdoms – having traversed Istria for more than a thousand years.
A local later illustrates the point perfectly: “I have friends born when this region was part of Yugoslavia, while their parents were born under Italian rule and their grandparents, under the Austro-Hungarian empire.”
We approach Motovun, the jewel of Istria’s mediaeval hilltop towns.
Resembling a fortress with a double ring of thick, defensive walls, turrets and gateways, Motovun sits majestically above a medley of vineyards, wheat-fields and newer houses that have settled along the leafy-green slopes.
The scenery is relaxing, but gazing at the town’s remnants of fortification systems, it is easy to imagine how elevation was crucial given attacks by conquerors in the past.
Today, Motovun is a quirky amalgam of Romanesque and Gothic buildings, housing restaurants serving typical Istrian dishes – including fresh, homemade pasta (particularly fusi istriani), cold cuts such as prosciutto, scrambled eggs and bean soup – and a cluster of artist studios.
The godfather of Croatian native art, Krsto Hegedusic, was one of the first painters to set up shop in the 1960s.
I head to another hilltop town, Buzet, and check in at Vela Vrata, a family-run boutique hotel offering rooms at about €120 (S$195) a night.
Historic stone arches from the 16th century, Mala (small) and Vela (large), welcome visitors who enter the tranquil town in the heart of the Mirna Valley.
I wander around tiny but charming Buzet by foot, weaving through mediaeval buildings in diverse stages of ageing and refurbishment.
Children are playing around an old cistern with baroque ornaments at the town’s central square.
A trio of girls smile bashfully when asked if I can photograph them amid the grey stone buildings.
Most of the town’s residents, I learn, resettled at the foot of the hill in a new part of town long ago.
Today, Buzet is a confluence of culinary, historical and adventure enthusiasts, for whom it is an ideal base for mountain biking, parasailing, horse-riding and fishing.
Every second weekend of September, Buzet draws travellers for a popular festivity that marks the start of truffle season – an enormous omelette, comprising 2,000 eggs and 10kg of truffles, is cooked in a giant pan.