It’s 5am and dawn is still far off, but Keti and Bela are already at work and don’t seem to mind the cold autumn mist shrouding the Motovun woods in the heart of the Istria peninsula.
“Come on Bela! Shoo, shoo! Where is it? Go for it Keti! Shoo, shoo!” Milena Labinjan briskly encourages her two dogs. The trio have just started their daily shift in search of Istria’s “treasure” and one of the rarest and most expensive foods in the world — the white truffle.
“It is rather exhausting physically and mentally for both people and dogs. On average, you walk 15km to 20km daily,” says the 54-year-old.
She lights her way through the shady oak woods with a flash-light while the dogs run around, constantly sniffing the ground. Trained dogs, which can smell truffles from a distance of up to 50m, can be compared to marathon runners as they strain their lungs for hours.
Like most inhabitants in the area, Milena leads her dogs on the truffle hunt twice a day, for several hours at a time, into the 1Â 100ha forest lying at the foot of the picturesque town of Motovun.
The team has to take advantage of their window of opportunity between mid-September and the end of January, when the white truffles are in season, sparking a kind of fever among locals for the gastronomic delight.
The Motovun woods, consisting mainly of oak and ash trees, is the main habitat in Istria for the uncultivable fungus.
Truffles are found at an average 5cm to 20cm below the ground near trees, with which they live in symbiosis.
As they evaporate they let off an odour, which lasts for only a certain period of time that cannot be predicted, and can be detected by well-trained dogs and experienced “hunters”.
Luck plays a part, and this time it seems to have come Milena’s way as Bela, a gentle two-year-old crossbreed, suddenly gets very excited, wags her tail, sniffs hurriedly and starts to scratch the clay topsoil.
“Stop Bela! Wait!” Milena shouts quickly approaching the dog to prevent it from eating the fungus. On her knees, she uses a small shovel to carefully dig out a cherry-sized truffle.
“Bravo Bela! You earned us â,¬30 ($38),” Milena, an unemployed worker from the nearby village of Skropeti, tells the animal. She puts the brown-yellow truffle into a bag, awards both dogs with bread crumbs and the uncertain search continues.
The white truffle — Tuber Magnatum Pico — known for its strong and specific aroma and taste is the most valuable species. Besides Istria, it can also notably be found in Italy and southern France.
“Its gastronomic value can be compared with caviar. At first many do not like it, but later it simply gets under your skin,” claims Damir Fakin, a passionate truffle hunter.
Connoisseurs say white truffles are best when fresh, for example grated onto pasta, while the black variety, which is not as expensive and can also be found in the area in both winter and summer, is excellent with scrambled eggs.
Truffles can also be found in a range of products such as cheese, butter, sauces or olive oil.
Fakin was more fortuitous than Milena as Beti, a four-year-old retriever, found a 160g truffle that he will sell for about â,¬200.
The specially trained dogs are key in the hunt for truffles and, while some prefer crossbreeds, Fakin opted for those with pedigree.
“It is a matter of a dog’s talent, scent, character, the way it moves through the woods,” explains Fakin (51), caressing Beti and proudly holding his peach-sized truffle.
The price of white truffle depends on its size and shape. It varies from â,¬200 per kilo for those truffles lighter than 10g to â,¬1Â 200 per kilo for those weighing more than 20g. The cost of those weighing more than 100g — dubbed “Jokers” — is negotiated directly with buyers.
Locals, for whom collecting of truffles is usually a side income, say on average they find around a few dozen grams daily. During the season they earn around â,¬600 monthly, close to an average salary in Croatia.
About 2Â 500 people are believed to be involved in truffle business in Istria, while about 1Â 000 search for them daily.
The search for truffles in Istria started back in the 1930s, when the region was part of Italy.
Many complain that currently there are too many truffle hunters. About five to six tonnes of truffles — of which 90% are the white truffles — are collected in Istria each year while two decades ago the figure was almost double. About 70 % of them are exported, mainly to Italy.
Istria uses truffles to lure tourists that flock mainly to the Adriatic coast, which is about a 30-minute drive away.
“The region is becoming recognised for truffles, which is our goal as they are rare in Europe,” said Nada Prodan-Markovic, head of tourist board in Buzet, proclaimed the “City of Truffles”.
Apart from enjoying specialty truffle dishes, tourists are offered the experience of real truffle hunting, can attend show-cooking and learn all about the precious fungus.
According to the Guinness Book of Records, Istria is also home to the biggest truffle to have been discovered — a white one weighing 1,31 kg, which was served at a local dinner for 100 guests in 1999.
The “earthnuts’ are also keenly sought after for their supposed aphrodisiac effect.
“No one will neither prove nor deny that,” Fakin says with an impish smile.
“It’s probably a myth,” says Radmila Karlic, who runs a local truffle trading company.
“An aphrodisiac is to eat good food, drink good wine and all that in good company,” she concludes. — AFP