Friday 25 October 2013

Mushrooms and truffles

I don’t think I’ve ever eaten so many different varieties of mushrooms cooked in so many different ways than in the past few weeks. When we ran out of ideas of how to cook them (fried, in risotto, breaded…) and were almost – yes – fed up of eating them, we decided to use the rest of our supply to make a tasty mushroom soup.

The wet weather we’ve had lately has provided the ideal conditions for mushrooms to grow in the dark and damp forests. Istrians love their mushrooms and the locals here know all about the different varieties, where to pick them and importantly, which ones are edible and which ones are not.

When I eat mushrooms I always think of my grandmother. She had loved to pick mushrooms in the forest near the family home and then cook them up for her grandchildren, though she didn’t appreciate the taste of mushrooms herself. During my visits to Istria, I liked to go to the forest with her and would be amazed at how easily she would spot them, while my untrained eye searched in vain.

This is also the peak season for truffles. Our truffle-hunting neighbour has had more luck lately. As soon as he takes his tractor out of the garage every morning, his dogs run around in excitement, knowing that they’re going truffle hunting. They jump onto the trailer hooked up to the tractor and off they go into the forest. Just yesterday he showed me three white truffles he found, which looked like small, bumpy, yellowish-coloured potatoes with a very pungent smell. This was a lucky find as white truffles fetch a very high price.

The forests of Istria
It is from mid-September to mid-January that this highly-prized white truffle (called Tuber Magnum Pico) can be found in the forests of Istria. This rare truffle only grows in very few places in Europe: apart from Istria, it can also be found in the forests of Italy and France. Truffles generally grow about 25 centimetres underground around the roots of certain trees like oak, linden, poplar and willow, and can sometimes be found at the ground’s surface too. Since it’s so rare and a much-appreciated culinary delicacy, the white truffle costs up to 2000 Euros per kilo. The less pungent black truffle however, is available all year round and is significantly less expensive: these go for 200-300 Euros per kilo. 

Recently we went to the village of Livade near Motovun for Tuberfest, one of the many truffle festivals happening around Istria. We tasted samples of white and black truffles as well as dishes prepared with them. There were also all kinds of ‘truffle products’ for sale like flavoured oils, pastes, cheeses and pasta.

The highlight of the festival in Livade was the truffle hunting demonstration. The multilingual guide (who spoke Croatian, Italian, German and English) shared her vast knowledge of truffles and truffle-hunting. She explained that there are about 800 registered truffle hunters in Istria holding the required licence – how many ‘unregistered’ hunters there are is anyone’s guess. Hunters can spend hours walking through the forests with their specially-trained dogs who have a highly-developed sense of smell for truffles. Once a dog catches the scent of a truffle, it starts digging furiously at the ground. The hunter then gives the dog a treat and continues the digging because it’s important not to damage the truffle. Apparently the best dogs for truffle-hunting are German hunting dogs (Weimaraners) and an Italian breed of dog called Lagotto Romagnolo. A hunter will always have two dogs with him: one is experienced in truffle hunting while the other is younger and still in training and learns by imitating the older dog. Early morning is considered the best time to hunt for truffles because the dogs’ sense of smell is at its peak and they’re also hungry so keen to hunt.

Digging for truffles...

Just as the guide finished her presentation, a dog jumped out of the forest we were standing next to (perfectly timed!) and started digging frantically. Close behind him was another dog and their owner who was quick to take over and continue the digging with a small spade, unearthing – surprise, surprise – a white truffle.

My name is Tuber Magnum Pico and I'm a white truffle.

According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the largest white truffle was found here in Istria in 1999, weighing 1.31 kg and valued at over $5000. This record is held by Giancarlo Zigante but locals here say that he did not actually find it but had bought it from a truffle hunter. Mr Zigante has a well-known truffle restaurant in the village of Livade and a shop which sells truffles and all kinds of truffle products like truffle pastes and oils.

Truffle hunting is in any case, a very lucrative business and many people in Istria try their luck in finding the elusive white truffle. Our neighbour told me about a large white truffle he had found years ago, the proceeds of which he was able to use to finance the construction of his house. Today, due to less favourable exchange rates and higher living costs, the profit would not be as significant, but truffle hunting is a way many people try to supplement their income.

As for the taste of truffles, this is something which is hard to describe… the taste is very ‘earthy’ and somehow a bit mushroom-like, similar to the smell and taste of dried mushrooms. The taste of the white truffle is very strong and the smell almost overpowering. My favourite way of eating it is grated over a traditional type of Istrian pasta called fuži.

Have you ever tried truffles? Black or white? What's your favourite way of eating them?

Friday 18 October 2013

The post office

Life in the village is delightfully simple. The church bells keep time each hour in a place where time seems to have stopped. In terms of modern conveniences these are also pleasantly few. Gračišće boasts an automatic teller machine, a small grocery store, a tavern, and a post office. There even used to be a café/bar here which has been closed for some time but there’s talk of it re-opening in the spring. The village also has five churches remaining of its original seven, which could be the topic of a future blog post, but today I’d like to write about the lovely little post office.

Gračišće’s post office is the smallest post office I’ve ever seen. It is also the most rustic. Located just inside the village’s main arched gateway, it occupies a small stone house with traditional wooden shutters. An old water fountain stands in front and is a relic of another time – this is probably where people came to fill their buckets with water and maybe catch up on news. A few flowerpots decorate the three steps leading to the entrance.

The post office is open for two hours a day, Monday to Friday. It used to open from 7am to 9am, which suited my father just fine because he liked to go buy his newspapers there first thing in the morning. (By the way, if you think 7am is early, this is the usual time offices start work in Istria! – more on working hours is planned for another future post.) Recently the opening hours changed and the post office now only opens its doors at 10:30am before closing at 12:30pm. These revised opening times have caused a minor disruption to my father’s daily schedule, and as a result he makes the 8-kilometre drive every day to Pazin to get his newspapers. “Why don’t you just wait until 10:30?” I asked him. “Because by then it’s old news,” was his reply.

Why is the post office open only two hours a day? Because the same post office lady who works at the counter also delivers the mail. So when she’s not selling stamps or newspapers, she’s driving around Gračišće municipality delivering letters and packages.

The post office lady got to know me pretty quickly because whatever I can’t find locally, I order on-line. So a bunch of packages arrived for me in quick succession (mostly books but also a cat radiator bed for the South Indian cat). She even called me once to let me know a big package had arrived for me. It took me about 30 seconds to walk over to the post office. There were no lines to wait in. Actually there was no one there apart from the post office lady who handed over my package. Then another 30 seconds to walk home. As delightfully simple as that.

Friday 11 October 2013

Pazin's monthly market

Last week the first of October fell on a Tuesday and since it was the first Tuesday of the month, we headed over to Pazin for the monthly market, known locally as the Pazin Samanj. Pazin is only 8 kilometres away and the closest town to us.

I did a bit of reading up on the Pazin Samanj and learned that it’s been held since the 1500s! This was an important local agricultural market for a long time. Today there’s all kinds of stuff sold here and people come from all over Istria to sell their wares and to pick up a bargain, meet up with friends and neighbours, or just walk around the market “because there’s nothing else to do around here”, as my father put it.

The market starts in the pedestrian area of the town centre where old objects are sold. I won’t say ‘antiques’ because this was more like a garage sale of second hand things. I saw household items used in times past, like lanterns, clothes irons made of cast iron (like the ones used by the dhobis in India!), a few pieces of old furniture, and Communist-era telephones, clocks and radios. I also saw many ugly porcelain vases and other uninspiring curios and knick-knacks. A stand selling old musical instruments was more interesting.

Most of the market is taken over by stalls selling cheap clothes and shoes and things like tablecloths, bed sheets and towels. There are some fruit and vegetable stalls and others selling local food products like olive oil, jam, honey.

But the original agricultural aspect of the market is still evident today in the many stalls selling farming tools. This also reflects a society which was predominantly agricultural until fairly recently and where people still work the land.

This is also the place to pick up straw brooms, kitchen utensils made of wood...

and hand-woven wicker baskets.

How about a fly swatter?

Or a hat?

A few more objects from times past looking for new owners.

And even cemetery lanterns are on sale.

Friday 4 October 2013

Autumn in Istria

In Istria the last days of summer have turned into the first days of autumn. The days are bright and sunny but are getting shorter, and nights are noticeably cooler. I can still pick end-of-summer fruits like figs and blackberries, but not for much longer.

My Belgian husband and South Indian cat finally arrived just as the seasons changed. The husband was tired and the cat stressed-out after the 22-hour journey but both have recovered since. A future blog post is planned as an informational note on taking pets to Croatia and the EU and the export procedure from India. Both steps of the process were complex, with the end result being that neither the Indian nor Croatian authorities bothered to verify kitty’s papers… but more on that another time…

Ste trgali?” is a common question these days as locals ask each other if they’ve finished harvesting their grapes. Autumn is also the grape-picking season in Istria, a wine-making region well-known for its home-grown Malvazija (Malvasia) wine. Other popular grape varietals grown here are Chardonnay, Muscat, Pinot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Teran.

My uncle who is a small wine-producer decided it was time to pick his grapes last weekend. Unfortunately the harvest this year was a poor one. Perhaps it was the long and wet spring, or the hot days of summer or some kind of pest, but his Malvasia grapes did not do well. The Teran grapes have fared better and will be harvested this coming weekend. Grape harvesting is a community affair here with family members and neighbours coming to help each other out and share a meal (and some wine!) afterwards.

Autumn is also truffle season. For my Indian friends who may not know – a truffle is a type of mushroom which looks like a potato and grows underground. Since they’re difficult to find (only trained dogs or pigs can sniff them out!) they’re extremely expensive and highly prized as a culinary delicacy. Truffles grow here in the forests of central Istria. During one of my evening walks in the woods recently I came across a man carrying a small spade and accompanied by three dogs – he was surely looking for truffles. Our neighbour is also a ‘truffle hunter’ and has two dogs he has trained to sniff out and find truffles. Yesterday I saw him coming back from the forest with his dogs and asked if he had had any luck – not yet!

The elusive and expensive truffle even has its own festival happening this weekend in a small town called Livade. We may go have a look and even have the chance to taste this mysterious mushroom-potato-like gourmet delicacy… perhaps the subject of another future blog post!
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