Today’s travels will take us into the heart of truffle country and to the hilltop town of Motovun (see above), a fortified enclave in the heart of Istria.
But first we drove about an hour to the seaside town of Poreč (the č is pronounced “ch” like in punch).
Poreč is a popular seaside resort, which seemed to be populated by a surfeit of Germans. We are here not for the seaside, but to see the UNESCO World Heritage site of the Euphrasian Basilica, which dates from the 6th century. The complex contains earlier 4th century remains, a Bishop’s residence, a baptistry, a Venetian tower, and the spectacular golden Apse mosaics.
The view from the Venetian tower is really pretty, and as you can see, we’ve been enjoying some lovely weather.
The Apse dates from the 6th Century and the mosaics predictably depict Christ and the Apostles, the Virgin and child as well as St. Maurus, Bishop of Eurphrasus after whom the basilica is named.
In each of the Istrian towns we have visited we have seen lots of what I might call “Romeo and Juliet” balconies, but there appear to be lots more of them here in Poreč. It is really easy to imagine yourself back hundreds of years just by looking around at the buildings and the street.
In a land that lives on seafood and meat, vegan options are few and far between. We’ll have our fair share of fish this trip and will minimize our dairy intake, but it would be impossible to avoid entirely on this trip, even if we wanted to. So far all the restaurants we have seen have been local Croatian places, which tend to serve fairly simple meat and fish dishes as well as pasta and pizza. We have not seen any ethnic restaurants yet, although I think we did spot one McDonalds (if you could call that ethnic!) in Rovinj.
Since we know we’ll mostly be eating fish in local restaurants this trip, we’re taking advantage of diversity when it presents itself. Here in Poreč there is a vegan restaurant called Artha, which is unusual as we’ve been led to expect only to find such places in some of the big towns like Rijecka, Zagreb, Split, and Dubrovnik. So we took advantage and had a nice vegan lunch before heading off to the hills and the town of Motovun.
The approach to Motovun is pretty spectacular and reminds me of other fortified hills towns we have visited in France and Germany. Indeed the overall landscape we’ve been seeing is very similar to Provence, France or Tuscany, Italy. Even if not quite as pretty, many of the local produce is similar – truffles, olive oil, wine, lavender, and the land and landscape seems vaguely familiar.
In Motovun, you have to park at the base of the hill and either hike up or take a bus. As it was kind of hot, we wimped out and took the bus, but only one way – we would walk back down under our own steam. The views from the ramparts are pretty spectacular.
Also the high position and late afternoon thermal currents make this a good place to paraglide and we saw three paragliders in action, including watching this one take off by the city gates.
Motovun has no shortage of truffle shops, most selling Zigande brand truffle products. The next town down the valley is Livade, which is truffle center, Croatia, and the HQ of the Zigande company. Even here, truffle products are not cheap. Costs depend on the type of truffle (which varies by season) as well as the type of product. Fresh truffles seem to currently be selling for about US$300/Kg (2.2 Lbs), so even a few ounces cost a decent amount. Truffle is often mixed with mushrooms and olive oil as these enhance the flavor and expand the volume of whatever you are using the truffles with. We bought a medium size jar to make a nice truffle sauce for some pasta when we get home.
Truffles are so expensive because not only are they rare – they are very hard to find. Buried about 8 inches down, usually in oak forests, the only way to find them reliably is to used trained animals. Pigs in some other countries, but here they use trained dogs and we’ve seen pens of them on our walks. Apparently they do the truffle hunting at night, which encourages the pooches to use more of the their sense of smell to navigate (and hopefully pick up the smell of truffles) rather than eyesight.
One of the shopkeepers told me that in the past anyone could hunt for truffles, but they almost wiped out the entire crop from overhunting and picking truffles too small (i.e. not letting them reproduce). A flood a couple of decades ago also did major damage to the crop. Today you have to have a license and trained dogs, both of which cost a lot of money, and hence the premium price for this epicurean delight.
We had read about an affordable restaurant called Konoba Dolina in Gradinje, the town next to Livade where we ended up having dinner. Every night we’ve eaten al fresco as the weather at dinnertime tends to be lovely and tonight was no exception. The only downside is that lots of Croatians still smoke and while it is supposedly banned indoors, no such luck on the terrace.
The dinner was simple, but very tasty, starting with a simple salad followed by gnocchi with wild asparagus and another pasta dish with truffles, which was the star. This was made with something called fusi, or homemade pasta, which was a shape I had not seen before – imagine rolling out ravioli squares, but instead of filling them, you just roll end up, kind of like a mini (empty) cannoli. Down home cooking, Croatian style, washed down with the local vino. Not a bad way to live.