The Truffle Hunt: A Brief Respite From the Realities of COVID-19

Truffle Hunting Istria

“Betty, Betty Betty!” Josip called into the forest. Betty, a fourteen-year-old Lagotto Romagnolo, Italy’s premier truffle hunting dog, waded through autumn’s fallen leaves, sniffing the damp, cool, earth. “Lela, Lela, Lela!” Josip called immediately after, his deep voice echoing in the woods of Buzet. He had been hunting in the woods of Buzet since 2 am. The height of white truffle season keeps him wading through forests like these. The German Pointer blended with the autumn foliage and was down in the dried waterbed ditch. Lela was stopped, sniffing intently in the curved ground. Josip darted through the woods and down the muddy slope, pulling the Pointer away from the ditch and first checking her mouth, prying open her snout. “Šu,” Lela,” he said reassuringly, giving her a gentle push up into the waterbed’s hole. “Šu, šu, Lela, šu,” meaning go, Lela, go.

Josip knelt beside her head, his face as close to her claws as was safe to be. He pulled her away and touching the earth, smelled the soil. Gently spreading his hands he gave an, “Ahhh,” and took out his otka tool to delicately extract a whole white truffle. “Can you hold her?” He asked. I held Lela’s collar. Although it was both dog’s last season to hunt before retiring, both fourteen years of age, her body was strong and muscular, attempting to lean closer to Josip’s gentle and careful dig. It’s Mid-November, the height of white truffle season in Istria Croatia and Josip has been awake and hunting since two in the morning.

“Ah, no,” he said, taking the white truffle in his hands. “You see this?” I nodded. The truffle had a gray tail. “Puž.”

“Puž?” I asked. He pulled at it and threw it to the ground. I gasped.

“Worm. How you say…” He pulled out his phone as I stared at the lifeless animal. Lela gave it a lazy glance then fixed her eyes back to Josip’s hand that held the white truffle. “Slug. We’ve had a lot this season.”

He handed me the white truffle and I looked at the damage that had been done. The slug had dug a cavity within the truffle so large, it was almost hollow. “That truffle would have been first class but now? Third.”

“You can still sell it?”

“Oh yes,” he said, his eyes watching the woods. “Betty, Betty, Betty!” He bellowed. “Betty!” He said again, ending his call in a short laugh, a shake of his head. “She’s old, you know? But still one of the best.” He spotted her and darted to the slope of the empty riverbank. I gingerly followed, careful not to slip. My boots were caked with leaves gone soft from layers of mud. Up the slope I watched Josip inspect Betty’s mouth. “Ey!” He said, prying open her mouth. “Ey! When?” He let go and Betty continued chewing, her jaw crackling, like the sound of peanuts.

We walked on. Lela found a red truffle, which is amber in color but not eaten. It didn’t smell all that pungent but the look of it was striking. Josip tossed the small grain back into the forest. The forest was filled with Birch, Poplar, and oak. The varying thin and thick trunks were clouded with clinging threads of damp moss. Mushroom species thrived up their spines or at their base, flowering on the forest floor.

Lela began to sniff beneath a tree, close to a hollowed log. Josip cooed his, “Šu” into the dog’s ear once more as she dug into the ground. “You see,” he said, pulling Lela away and brushing dirt off of the head of a truffle. “They are symbiotic. They are often among the roots. You have to cut the roots away so as not to lose half the truffle. If you hurt the truffle, it loses value.” Josip carefully extracted the valuable white truffle, a fungus that looks far more like a miniature human brain or walnut than any mushroom. He gently rubbed the dirt off of it. “First class,” he said proudly, declaring a triumphant statement in Croatian as he handed it to me. David and I admired the truffle before he put it in his vest’s chest pocket.

“Do the dogs ever become confused by the truffle smells from your jacket?” David asked.

“No, never. But they do expect treats of truffle when you find ones that are no good. And of course, you reward them.” We walked through the woods for a while more then headed out towards the main road. “Sometimes you find truffles out here,” Josip continued, walking with the dogs who sniffed the grass eagerly.

A man in his car stopped to give a wave, calling a few words to Josip. “We’re all friends in this area. But if you run into even a very good friend in the woods and ask them if they’ve found anything, they will answer, ‘nothing, no nothing,’ holding up their hands. It is what you must do because truffle hunting is competitive, and the seasons are short. Of course, when I saw my friend buy a new car, I knew his nothings all season were untrue, but it is what we do, how we must be to make a living.” Loading the dogs back into the car, Josip, David, and I were all equally happy with our finds. Four white truffles! I would have been happy with just a pebble. “This lake, Butoniga, was where some of the greatest truffles were before it was filled with water,” Josip said, pointing to the lake as we wound around it and back up the hill to Karlić Tartufi. Josip gave the two of us a handshake before setting back out into the woods. A handshake, such a strange sensation after not having a single one since the start of the pandemic.

Istria was faring well through COVID though, as of writing this a month after my visit, things have changed. Croatia has shut down until December 21st. While stores are still open to a minimal number of shoppers, all restaurants and bars have shuttered until the few days left before Christmas.

Back at Karlić Tartufi, we were greeted by Radmila Karlić, who has been hunting truffles with her father since she was a child. While truffles have been hunted for hundreds of years in Italy and France, it is a relatively new business to Istria but a thriving one, even in the face of the pandemic. While COVID may have prevented the Istrian Truffle Festival for 2020, the pandemic has not slowed demand for the coveted delicacy.

Ms. Karlić showed us a vast tub filled to the brim with white truffles ready to ship out to Japan. “Does the pandemic hurt this business?” I asked her.

“Not much. There is always a need for truffles,” she said with a bright smile.

Karlić welcomed us into the tasting room then excused herself to set off on another truffle hunt with her son. Inside the facility, we were given truffle gin, mistletoe brandy, delicious spreads made with white and black truffles, a myriad of cheeses, honey, wine from a local vineyard, and scrambled eggs, lightly cooked and oozing onto the plate, decorated with generous shavings of black and white truffle shaved with a careful hand. The last tasting was a plate of warm puff pastries filled with a cream made with either white and black truffles to finish the meal.

The dining area offered uninterrupted views of the rolling hills of Istria, the hill top town of Motovun in the distance. We’d visit Motovun the following weekend, another day’s travel as the sun had already begun its descent on the shortened November days.

White Truffles Buzet

As we finished our wine, excited yips and barks started up as one of the estate’s truffle hunters approached the dog pen. The dogs were far too excited to sit and wait, yelping ecstatically and bouncing off the pen’s walls in the hopes that they would be chosen for the next hunt.

Truffle dogs are always chosen to hunt in pairs. Though trained as puppies, they usually have their best finds in the fourth to fifth seasons, starting to hunt independently in their third. For the first seasons, puppies accompany a pair of older dogs. When an older dog begins to dig for a truffle, the trainer stops her to let the puppy finish the dig. A puppy was chosen for this hunt and, tail fluttering an overly excited wag, was loaded into the truck for the short, three-minute drive down the hill.

Naturally, David and I gave the gift shop a great deal of business, stocking up on presents our families would receive long after the holidays were through. We also gathered plenty of supplies for our own holiday cooking needs, as we were to spend the rest of November and December in the hills of Opatija.

Driving back, I showed David the Planet Money episode about truffles that had first sparked my desire to find their source and watch an expert in the hunt so many years before. Far more than “worth the trip,” this Istrian escape was a small piece of heaven, an escape during an uncertain year.

This autumn, the Karlić family will tirelessly hunt to feed the world’s demands for truffles just as they will next season, and the season after. Even as countries around the world are forced to shutter, locked under the grip of the COVID-19 pandemic, these white truffles will spread a little bit of Croatia out into the world, filling the sense of wonder to isolated travelers and foodies far and wide, who dream of their next great escape to Istria, to the forests of Buzet.

Useful Tips – Truffle tours require you to bring two pairs of shoes; a pair of boots and anything from flats to practical tennis shoes for your truffle tasting once the hunt is complete. I suggest taking a backpack to carry your water bottle and extra layers as the hills of Istria and the forest can be chilly and any sort of tote or paper bag for your dirty boots once the hunt is complete.