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Hunt for the Istrian treasure

 

Only a few hundred metres into the forest above the Dragonja River and Liza is already running away and starting to dig assertively with her paws under the roots of a low oak bent from the bora wind. The Kocjančič’s Labrador Retriever is one of many trained dogs that Istrian truffle pickers use for ‘hunting’ this precious tuber.

Sara Kocjančič
Photo: Suzan Gabrijan

One of 25 truffle pickers in this part of Slovenia where the majority of truffles grow is Sara Kocjančič. Her father Zdenko, a veteran truffle picker, inspired her to follow in his footsteps. He has been picking them for 27 years, for the most part as an amateur since truffle hunting was only legalised in Slovenia in 2011. His daughter showed an interest in hunting for truffles very early on and she joined her father as a little girl on his hunting expeditions in the local forest.

The young Primorska woman follows Liza with a special poker and stops the dog at the last moment so that it does not eat the small black tuber, which it digs out from the dark soil, so dark that the truffle is barely visible.

Truffles
Photo: Suzan Gabrijan

The Kocjančič family have six dogs trained to hunt truffles, Labrador Retrievers and mixed breeds. Sara explains that mixed breeds are more successful because they have the qualities of several breeds. According to experience, females are better at hunting truffles. Furthermore, males must be castrated since they lack sufficient attention while hunting when they become sexually mature and then they quickly become lazy and lose the motivation for hunting.

Dogs are introduced to truffle hunting when they are still puppies. Their owners first mix pieces of truffles in their food and later they train to hunt with experienced older dogs. The entire process takes two years.

A dog can smell a truffle from about 50 metres, but Sara believes that certain dogs smell this aromatic tuber from as much as about 150 metres away. They never hunt with more than two dogs at once since they quickly smell the truffle and try to eat it. With more dogs, hunting would not be manageable and too many precious truffles would be chewed on.

With one hand, Sara gently pushes Liza away and holds her so she will not jump on another truffle. She flushes it out and smells it. “The Périgord black truffle; these are rare,” nods Sara with cheeks red from the wind and January cold. The season of noble black truffles is at its peak in winter months. The Périgord black truffle has a distinct intensive aroma and it is the only one that can be thermally treated. Its price is estimated at 1,000 euros per kilogram.

Sara Kocjančič with her dog Liza

Photo: Suzan Gabrijan

Black summer truffles that grow between April and October are most common in this region, while white truffles that are the most highly appreciated are hunted for between September and January. Among various truffle varieties that grow in Slovenia, there is also the spring white bianchetti truffle, which grows in March, but does not enjoy such a high reputation as larger white ones.

These also grow on somewhat different terrains that are steeper and difficult to access, so truffle pickers work on the good physical condition of their dogs before the season for these truffles.

The price of truffles varies from season to season. “The year before last, the season was terribly bad due to drought, and the price rose to between 1,000 to 6,000 euros per kilogram. But finding that one kilo was really a mission impossible,” explains Sara, who sells majority of the truffles she finds directly to restaurants.

The number of truffles found in a day depends on many factors, such as location, moisture, animals that also enjoy truffles, etc. Snails are a huge problem, but wild pigs that eat large quantities of truffles are the largest problem. And what is more, they leave large holes behind when they root after truffles.

Daily success also depends on how many truffles are collected by other truffle pickers before you. “First come, first served,” shrugs Sara. Camaraderie and certain unwritten rules about who terrain belongs to apply merely to some extent. So she frequently looks for them at night to beat other pickers.

Truffles
Photo: Suzan Gabrijan

The industrious daughter has upgraded her father’s business with tours she organises for tourists to demonstrate truffle hunting, which have proved to be a welcome contribution to the development of local tourism. Sara says that the majority of tourists on such tours are Americans, followed by Canadians. She has also guided tourists from Hong Kong, Puerto Rico, etc.

From the forest, Sara turns with her daily haul to the main road in Nova vas and approaches the »Na burji Restaurant«, one of the rustic, genuine restaurants in the Istrian hinterland. Locals lean over the bar and slowly sip their third beer of the day. In the meantime, Oriella, the upright, decisive owner with a hoarse voice, who opened the restaurant because she had enough of the mediocre coastal offer, decants home-made grape-skin brandy into bottles.

Na burji
Na Burji Restaurant
Photo: Suzan Gabrijan

She hands out a shot-glass of brandy and indicates that we should sit down in the room warmed up from the fireplace. On red and white checked tablecloths, she puts a freshly baked loaf of bread, a neighbour’s cured pork neck and prosciutto, and fresh sheep cheese from another neighbour. The wine has not come from far away either. She pours us Malvazija from Pucer z Vrha Wine Cellar.

Pasta with Truffles
Photo: Suzan Gabrijan

Oriella and Sara start preparing pasta. They throw home-made fuži from Škocjan in boiling water. Over a water bath, they mix in the ingredients for the sauce: butter, a little sour cream, grated Parmesan cheese, Piran salt, pepper, and the most important thing, grated truffles, which are later also generously grated on top of each finished plate. The dish is prepared in no time. It looks exceptionally simple, but the flavour is sensational.

Sara and Oriella smile. As locals, they have already had their fair share of fuži with truffles, but they enjoy watching time and again how a simple local dish puts guests into ecstasy. If truffle as an aphrodisiac is only a myth, according to down-to-earth Oriella, then its stimulative effect can perhaps be found right here, in the bliss of those who enjoy them.

Truffles
Photo: Suzan Gabrijan

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