Truffles, Olive Oil, Wine and Lavender

A hill top town at sunset

Mike and I haven’t taken much advantage of being in a part of the world filled with wineries, olive trees and lavender.  We have learned a fair bit about truffles.  We attended a truffle festival and went on a truffle hunt demonstration.  For our hunt in the forest a black and a white truffle had been planted by the guide to ensure that the tourists were satisfied and got to see a successful truffle hunt.

We had to take a small tourist train to the forest where the truffles were to be found.  At departure time, Mike and I were the only ones on the train.  We were waiting for a bus full of Japanese tourists.  It seems that Japanese love truffles.  This festival was on for ten weekends.  There were one or more busloads of Japanese tourists every day the truffle festival was open.  After the little train departed, we were given plastic booties to put over our shoes, much like you would see in a hospital.  Apparently, truffles are only found in very muddy ground and these little wraps were to protect our shoes.  If they had told us ahead of time, I could have got my rubber boots out of the trunk of the car which would have been much nicer.  I will say that as long as you avoided the really deep mud the booties worked better than I expected.

Dogs have found a truffle underground

Our guide was the “star” of a TV show a few years ago, on truffles and truffle hunting.  He used to use wild pigs that he had trained.  During the shooting of the TV show the pig got overexcited and bit his hand quite badly.  Our guide now only uses female dogs for truffle hunting.  For our demonstration he used a trained cocker spaniel and brought two of her puppies that were in training.  At a certain stage in a truffle’s life cycle the truffle emits a distinct odor and that is when it is ready to be picked.  Truffle hunting animals locate the truffles growing 5 – 10 cm below the ground, by their odor.  The truffle hunter needs to be ready to take over from his animal and finish digging up the truffle himself or the dog will eat it.

Truffles can be found in a few different areas in Europe.  Apparently, truffles will only grow when oak trees, soil conditions (muddy clay), and climate conditions are just right. People have tried to replicate the favorable truffle growing conditions elsewhere in the world with very little success.  White truffles are much rarer than black truffles and only found in this part of the world, from northern Italy to northern Croatia.  Black truffles will cost you $500 – $1 ,000 per kilogram ($225 – $450 per pound).  While that sounds extremely expensive white truffles sell for $6,000 – $15,000 per kilogram ($2,700 – $6,800 per pound)!  Based on the price, you can see why you only get truffle shavings, slices or minced truffle in a restaurant.  Luckily it takes a fairly small amount of truffle to get the flavour into the food.

Here are the two truffles “found” during our demonstration.  The larger black truffle sells for about $90.  The much smaller white one sells for $225 to a local restaurant.  Truffles can only be kept seven days in a refrigerator.  Any longer than that and they need to be dried.  You then soak them in oil when you want to use them later.  These prices are from Croatia.  We were told that truffles are twice as expensive in France.  Is that even possible?  They are known to have anti-cancer and anti-leukemia properties which might contribute to escalating prices.

Truffles have a distinctive odor and the white truffle smells different from the black truffle.  We were told that some high-end restaurants remove the outer layer of a black truffle and sell it as a white truffle, at the higher price.  If you can recognize the two distinctive odors, then you can spot the difference.

An interesting fact to end a truffle lecture on, is that white truffles are considered a natural aphrodisiac.  This might be part of the price difference.  There is a joke about men buying gold for their women while the women buy white truffles for their men.

As I mentioned in my last post, Mike and I had hoped to move to the southern portion of the Istrian Peninsula, simply to save some driving time while we explore the area.  This isn’t going to work as there are no campgrounds still open anywhere south of us on the peninsula.  The next campground open in the winter, where we will go next year, is 2 ½ hours south off the peninsula.  It really surprises Mike and I that the tourist season is so short here.  Given the huge crowds and interest you would think that they would work harder at extending the tourist season.  We have a camping discount card that is only good off-season.  In some of these campgrounds it started working the middle of August.  We are now in November and the weather has been averaging above 16⁰ C or 61⁰ F every day.  It has been lovely for the last week or so.  We have been told that this is a warmer fall than normal, but I can’t believe that lots of places were closed in September.  Most of the restaurants and cafés are now closed.  We find it very strange.

Rural Istria

We will be staying at our current campground for about seven weeks.  We will have to drive a little further, more often than I like to explore the entire peninsula but it is worth it.  We had thought about going much further south but decided to leave that until next year.  Our campground looks deserted where we are, but it isn’t.  Since we are using our ACSI discount camping card we can only choose sites further away from the water.  There are actually quite a few campers in the section by the water.  Most of them are German with a fair number of Italians.  Very few speak much English.  We haven’t had the visitors recently that we are used to seeing.  It doesn’t help that it is dark when Mike and I return to the campground most days, so we really don’t get a chance to even say hi to anyone.  In the cool temperature and in the dark most campers, like Mike and I, are inside and not sitting out to talk with passersby.

In March this year, we expected to have been heading south in Croatia within a week or two of our landing.  It was the first place we were heading for.  So much for our plans.  We are now aiming to head south in Croatia early in 2019 instead.  We have found somewhere near where we are camped, to leave our camper for the winter.  It is very odd.  There are a huge number of camper “depots” where people store their campers for the winter.  We started driving around trying to find one for us.  The first thing we noticed is that every single vehicle in these storage areas are all caravans i.e. vehicles that you tow but cannot drive on their own.  We talked to one gentleman who told us that our type of motorhome couldn’t be stored in any of these places.  We are wondering if it might be due to insurance reasons.  It is easier to insure something against theft if it can’t be moved by itself.  That is only speculation, but we were very lucky that we found this small place to take us because the large ones wouldn’t.

Just another lived in hill top medieval town

We have been driving around quite a lot and it appears that it is the small hilltop towns and villages that are most likely to be the medieval towns. The seaside towns are the main tourist destinations, often with Venetian architecture in the older parts of the town.  The area is extremely hilly.  Looking out you can often see church spires standing out on the horizon above the hilltops.  These little towns are right on the very top of the hills.  We are enjoying seeing both types of towns.  We visited Gračišće, a hilltop town, where most of the buildings were from the 1400s.  Quite a few were shells only, uninhabited with just the outside walls.  Others had been nicely refinished with new doors and windows and obviously updated interiors but still with 15th c. exteriors.  It was a great town to walk around and sightsee in.  One church was built in the 1300s and restored in the 1800s.  It seems strange to me to talk about buildings being restored before Canada was even a country.  The town had no restaurants and the one tavern was now closed for the season.  This is where actually having your camper with you would come in handy.  Of course, we don’t, we tour in the car.  We visited a very touristy town called Motovun.  It was another one of these very medieval looking towns, but it had been updated with tourists in mind.  There were quite a few shops and souvenir places and restaurants in the old buildings.  When you talk about tourism in Croatia you are typically talking about the seaside resorts.  Having these medieval towns within driving distance make for a nice one-day excursion for tourists spending a week or two on the beach.  For Mike and I, it is these small places that are the main attraction.

And another medieval hill top town

We also like the seaside resort towns.  One of them, Pula, we visited briefly and plan on returning to.  Near the water we walked around Pula’s huge Roman Amphitheatre, which was once the site of gladiator fights.  We only saw the outside of the Arena, as it is known.  We will buy a ticket to see inside when we return.  First, I want to do some reading about what we are seeing.  I read that in the summer you can get an audio guide to tell you about the arena.  I do not understand why the ticket office would remain open but the handsets for audio guides would be put away when the main tourist season ends.  That is quite disappointing.  The Arena was built in the 1st century AD at the same time as the Coliseum in Rome.  I think I liked it better than the Coliseum.  During the summer the Arena hosts Gladiator Fights for tourists.  Two thousand years ago, the stadium seated 20,000.  Today it seats 5,000 and is used for various concerts, opera, ballet, and sports competitions.  The sun was just starting to set while we were there and the light reflecting off the walls was lovely.

Roman Amphitheatre, 1st century AD in Pula, Croatia

I mentioned that our weather for the last week or two has been great, but we did have some major weather issues before that.  There were severe weather warnings about winds and rain.  Venice, which is just down the coast, had its worst flooding since 1979.  The water in Venice was 166 cm or 5’5” above sea level.  Quite a few people died in Italy due to this weather.  We can’t read the local newspapers and don’t actually hear much about local happenings unless we specifically check the internet.  We found out about the severe weather warnings after the torrential rains had already hit.  Being in torrential rains for a few days, in a metal RV, is extremely noisy, a somewhat uncomfortable feeling and would have been claustrophobic if it had lasted much longer.  Having an indoor mall within driving distance would have been nice.  Days later and the beaches and walkways along the coast were still covered in seaweed and debris.  Our campground lost multiple trees, luckily none right near our RV.  After the rain stopped pouring, we went for a drive.  On that day we had wet, drizzly weather and absolutely ferocious winds.  We visited one small town that looked to us to be the oldest town we had seen so far.  It had really narrow two-way streets, we had to back out with our car a couple of times.  I thought we were going to lose our mirrors.  The town was very small, the buildings were all stone with plaster in bad shape.  In Europe the town looks very historical, at home it probably would look old and poor.  There was a castle and walls right in the main square of the town.  It was closed and walking around in those winds didn’t work very well.

Here is a photo of Mike picking a persimmon, which he enjoys very much, from a tree on the side of the road.

We have booked our flight home.  We will be leaving Croatia on November 30 and driving to Venice which is about three hours away.  We won’t visit Venice on this trip but hopefully we can spend a couple of days there on our way back.  We will get home the night of December 1.  We hope to see everyone while we are in Canada.  Happy Thanksgiving to our American friends.



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