Croatia’s answer to Tuscany (minus the prime ministers)

It’s got record-breaking truffles, great local wines and more olive oil producers than any region in the world bar Tuscany. Is it time for the Croatian region of Istria to be recognised as a world-class foodie destination?

(First published in N by Norwegian magazine, August 2015. Photography by Ulf Svane)

In the 1930s, Pietro Černeka couldn’t understand why Italians would come with dogs and disappear into the forests near his home in northern Istria.

“One day he asked the Italians, ‘What are you doing?’” says his great-great-granddaughter, Daniela Puh, of a pivotal moment in her family history. “They said they were looking for truffles, which were even better than the ones back home at Italy – and that they were making good money from them.” When the Italians next came back, Černeka offered them wine and prosciutto in return for a truffle-hunting mongrel called Fido. “His wife thought he was mad,” says Daniela. “But it turned out to be a pretty good decision.”

Today, Natura Tartufi – which Puh runs with her parents and husband, Marko – is one of the two big, world-renowned truffle companies in Istria, which is considered one of the best places in the world to find them. The other is Zigante, whose owner Giancarlo Zigante dug up a 1.31kg white truffle in 1999, at the time the largest ever.

If you go out on a truffle-hunting trip with Daniela, her mother Anita and their surprisingly hyperactive dog Biba, you’re almost guaranteed to find a black truffle, and if you’re even luckier a rare (and expensive) white truffle. If you ask nicely, Daniela will cook you up some almost indecently tasty truffled scrambled eggs in the company’s smart, modern kitchen.

Finding these mysterious fungi could be a crude metaphor for discovering Istria. The heart-shaped peninsula at the top of Croatia (it also covers a corner of Slovenia and a sliver of Italy) is often overlooked in favour of Split and Dubrovnik down the coast. Many gourmet travellers are more likely to head to Tuscany, Umbria or Emilia-Romagna in Italy. It’s not completely under the radar, but it’s never quite had the billing it arguably deserves.

The oceanfront town of Rovinj is possibly the most beautiful old town in Croatia; the sleepy old hilltop towns of Motovun, Grožnjan and Buje rival anything you’ll find atop a Tuscan hill; and the Brijuni national park is a fantasy of turquoise sea, nature and Tito-era intrigue (this was where the dictator took Sophia Loren, Elizabeth Taylor et al). Journalists tend to label Istria “the new Tuscany”, though Istria is more diverse, having lived under Roman, Venetian, Austrian, Italian and Yugoslav rule, with its old buildings relatively unharmed by the Yugoslav Wars.

Then there’s the food. There are four types of soil here – red, black, grey and white (the cannier marketers add blue for the sea) – resulting in a particularly high variety of crops in such a concentrated area. As well as the truffles, Istrian extra virgin olive oil is some of the best in the world, and the region has more local producers than anywhere else bar Tuscany; terrestrial Teran and Malvasia grapes mean this is a prominent wine region; and there’s great local cheese, seafood, fish and prosciutto. In his No Reservations TV show in 2012, chef Anthony Bourdain raved that Istria is “the next big thing. The food is world class, the cheeses are world class, the wine is world class… I’m an idiot for not discovering it sooner.”

Yet it’s not quite the new big thing, either. While the tourist board has created the Istrian Gourmet umbrella group to encourage gastro-tourists, and the wineries have started welcoming more curious visitors, the area hasn’t exactly become overrun. Head to the wonderful Agrotourism Sia near Vodnjan and you might be eating slide-off-the-bone lamb from the farm with no company other than swallows diving through the restaurant.

It’s easy to get a table at Restaurant Milan, arguably the best restaurant in Pula; likewise the Zigante truffle restaurant in Livade or the Bourdain-approved Konoba Batelina in Banjole. While few of the restaurants are cutting-edge –white tablecloths and tired décor abound – the food is generally fantastic, with a real focus on local ingredients.

“When the war ended, and tourism started up again, local producers suddenly became important to this area,” says Ivica Matošević, who runs the highly rated Matošević winery in the beautiful rolling hills around Krunčići, near the spectacular Limfjord. Matošević, who produced his first wine in 1996, says: “Fifteen years ago, it was tricky to find good food and good wine here – now, food and wine culture is a big part of the image of the region.”

Matošević “got the wine bug” after studying oenology for a PhD in Italy, and is part of a new breed of winemakers who don’t come from winemaking families. Along with the likes of Bruno Trapan, a charismatic 33-year-old who has been making “rock ’n’ roll wines” near Pula since 2005, the new makers have pioneered methods such as using acacia and stainless steel barrels, as well as the more traditional French oak.

Trapan was recently awarded a 90 score by influential wine critic Robert M Parker, while Matošević’s award-winning wines have made the tasting menus at both the Fat Duck and Dinner, run by legendary British chef Heston Blumenthal.

“It’s harder to establish yourself when you’re new,” says Matošević, “but then it’s easier in a way because you start with new technology and aren’t too burdened by the past. There’s not a wealthy local market for Istrian wines, so it will be hard to become huge players, but we’re doing really interesting things here. When wine buyers come from London, they’re always surprised by the quality and the sophistication.”

While Matošević admits that he wants the Istrian gastro-tourism boom to go faster, there are signs that the area is recognising its natural advantages. Near Bale in the centre of the peninsula is the new Histria Aromatica, a beautiful 100,000m2 homage to the Istrian soil, with vineyards, orchards, olive trees, beehives and scores of indigenous aromatic plants, from lavender to sage and immortelle.

The park, which opened last year, was the brainchild of Boris Filipaj, a larger-than-life character who runs the Aromatica natural products company, and raised €3.5 million (NOK31.4m) to create what he calls “the ultimate showcase for what we have in Istria – natural, eco-friendly products, created by the soil”.

In the smart central building, where conference rooms can emit smells, he’s also building what he says is the first ethnobotanical museum in Europe. “As well as showing what Istria has, we also want to show that people can get everything they need – nutrition, skincare, essential oils – from 12 plants.”

Yet while there are cautious signs of innovation, the general vibe in Istria is small-scale production the old-fashioned way. Few places typify that more than the sleepy old town of Vodnjan, the centre of the region’s olive oil production, with more than 300 local producers producing small batches.

In a shed off the town’s park, where elderly locals sit under cypress trees and give slightly misleading directions to tourists, you can find the office of Meloto, one of the town’s best olive oils, which has been bottled by the Belci family since the 1940s.

“With a lot of producers, you have to ask whether it’s business or love,” says Matteo Belci, who inherited the company from his father Lorenzo and uncle Livio, both of whom still work the olive groves. “When you’ve been working with the olive trees since you were a kid, it’s about love.”

When he’s not working the day job in a bank, Belci Jr tends the family’s 3,000 or so trees, dotted around the peninsula, some of them more than 400 years old. During the October harvest, it’s a full-time job to process up to 1,800kg of oil, but most of the time Belci admits “my head is with the olive trees. It’s an old mentality. We hand-pick every olive and every olive has to be right.”

Olive oil’s an obsession in Vodnjan, where they’re proud that all the oil is pure extra virgin. “Less than five per cent of olive oil around the world is extra virgin,” says Belci, “and a lot of the brands that claim to be extra virgin aren’t. Picking and pressing olives the old way is not cheap or easy.”

As reward for the Belcis’ toil, Meloto has had international recognition. Last year the Flos Olei, the international bible of olive oil producers, awarded Meloto’s trademark Busa oil the award for the world’s best single-variety extra virgin olive oil in the medium fruity category.

“People who really know their olive oil know this area,” says Belci. “But we don’t always have the wealth or resources to compete globally with Spain or Italy. It’s a shame, because Istrian olive oil is the real deal.”

The same might be said for the place in general. If you want the real deal with minimum fanfare, go to Istria now – it might even be better than the new Tuscany.

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