The rotund man standing before me on the dirt path was wearing olive-green military fatigues and held a sharp, bladed object in his thick, oversized right hand. He looked unhappy to see me. I was late. His hands – pudgy and exaggerated – seemed like the result of an unlikely sculpting partnership between Michelangelo and Colombian artist Fernando Botero. Standing beside him were two dogs, Jackie and Duna.
Ivica Kalcic, 56 years old, looked like he had become what he has dedicated his life to: a pasty version of a giant bulbous white truffle. “Let’s go,” he said, wasting no time. He unleashed the dogs and they darted up the path into the leafy, dark forest.
I was in Istria, exploring the less trammeled interior of this peninsula in northwestern Croatia, and had signed up for a short truffle hunt. Along with Alba in northern Italy, Istria is what the Caspian is to caviar or Mexico is to the mustache: a foodie goldmine, hiding nuggets of earthen deliciousness so expensive that to cherish them might be asking for the guillotine in some future revolution. It was black truffle season and Ivica, 56, has been traipsing through this forest nearly every day for the last 40 years (white truffles, the season of which is in the autumn, are the pricier kin to darker-hued subterranean fungus).
Though Alba may get more attention for its buried, edible fungus treasures, it was in Istria where, in 1999, the largest white truffle ever was discovered. The three-pound truffle, valued at $5,000, was found by local truffle hunter Giancarlo Zigante and listed in the Guinness Book of World Records. Zigante soon after opened a mini-chain of truffle shops as well as an eponymous eatery just up the road from where I was traipsing with Ivica and his dogs.
I doubted such a prize would be found today but soon enough, Jackie, the more experienced of the two hounds, was digging up dirt. Ivica waddled over, pulled the dog away, and began hacking at the earth with his pick. A few seconds later, he held up the prize: a golf-ball sized black truffle, which he says will fetch him about thirty dollars. A few minutes later, Jackie was digging up another. And another. And another. So much that I wondered if they had been planted for my benefit.
Whatever the case, Ivica, doesn’t have to go very far for his paycheck. Just up the road in the village of Livade and in the shadow of the majestic medieval hill town, Motovun, is Giancarlo’s restaurant, Zigante Tartufi. A few hours later, I was sitting at a table in the front room, scoping out the menu. If whatever dish you order doesn’t already have truffles in it, the waiter will be by in a second to grate some on. Even my ice cream had truffles in it. “We go through two kilos on a busy day,” he told me, as he was grating some on to my shrimp-stuffed ravioli. The food at Zigante was good but risked appearing gimmicky, like an all-garlic restaurant. It’s hard to blame them. After all, this is truffle heaven. A minute later, the waiter set on my table something that looked like a plaster cast of someone’s brain. It was a rendering of the world’s largest truffle.
Afterward, I felt like a walking, breathing truffle myself. So much so that when I got back to my hotel, a dog walked by and I wondered if it was going to lurch for me. Surely truffles were oozing from my pores. It gave me a long look and kept on trotting up the street.