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New Europe

Day Four: Istria

Michael Palin - New EuropeIstria is famous for its truffles. The truffle is an unprepossessing, misshapen off-white tuber which grows in the soil around tree roots and which is considered so good to eat that men risk imprisonment to smuggle it across national borders. My guidebook describes the taste so many desire above all other as 'part nutty, part mushroomy, part sweaty sock'. And Istria is famous for them. Truffles, that is, not socks.

We drive through a sedate and timeless rural landscape that reminds me of Tuscany, with crops growing from deep-red earth and small towns growing from the tops of the hills.

In the Mirna valley is a stretch of thick oak and birch wood where we are to go truffle-hunting with Damir, a tall, rangy old hippy with a goatee beard, Guinness baseball cap, ex-army jacket and baggy trousers, and his eighty-six-year-old uncle Zdravko. Zdravko, who has a ruddy, outdoor complexion, wears an old forage-cap and carries a small stainless-steel spade slung across his shoulder like a rifle. Damir laughs when I worry about his octogenarian uncle.

'He's up every morning at four and in the forest until nine!'

But the two most important members of the expedition are Betty and Dick (a bit of a shock here as they're the names of my aunt and uncle), a four-year-old Labrador and a seven-year-old Retriever respectively.

Lovely, lively dogs that they are, I can't disguise my disappointment that they're not using pigs to nose out the truffles as depicted on the folklorique postcards they sell in France. Apparently pigs tend to eat the truffles as soon as they find them, which cuts down profits. So off we go into the forest. Betty, Dick, Damir, Zdravko and me. (And, of course, Nigel, Pete, John, J-P, Uncle Tom Cobley and all.)

It has taken two years to train Dick and Betty. They can now sniff out a truffle at 50 yards, even one buried an arm's length below ground.

Dick and Betty hare around among the silver birch saplings like children just let out of school.

Damir's honestly not expecting much. For the last two years it has not been obligatory to have a licence and there are various cowboys who come in, buy up what they can't find themselves and smuggle the truffles (tartufi in Italian) across the border into Italy where they have plenty of black truffles but few of the highly prized Istrian whites. Their other concern is for the delicate ecosystem of this part of Istria. Truffles thrive in unspoilt forest and they need the minerals from unpolluted rivers, but Croatia is on a building spree, with twenty-three golf courses seeking planning permission in Istria alone. Just then Zdravko calls across. Dick has dropped down beside a beech tree and is nuzzling into the earth, using his nose and his paws to uncover something. Damir kneels beside him and together they pull out what looks like a soil-covered stone. He rubs the soil away and holds it up to the dappled sunlight.

Dick, duly rewarded, races after a ball. 'That's about, well, 15 grammes.' Worth around 14 euros he reckons. The biggest he's ever found was over 300 grammes.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day Four: Istria
  • Country/sea: Croatia
  • Place: Istria
  • Book page no: 16

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