Welcome to the Land of Truffles

To continue our trip through Venice and Croatia I’m starting with Istria, a peninsula in Northern Croatia that juts out into the Adriatic Sea and borders Italy.  Correction!  It borders Slovenia, but is just south of Trieste, Italy, a sliver of Slovenia is in between.  We took a ferry from Venice to Rovinj.  We could have also gone to Pula near the tip of the inverted triangle that is Istria but Rovinj was closer to the interior city of Motovun, the next city we would visit.

Fun fact!  Rovinj was originally an island settled by Slavs in the 7th century.  Because fishing and maritime trade became the main industries, in 1199 Dubrovnik offered them protection.  Yyyyaaaaaaarrrrr!  Pirates were a problem so in the 13th century Venice took over those duties, and held on to them until 1797 when the Venetian Republic fell.  The influx of immigrants from Bosnia and mainland Croatia  forced the development of the city and the island was connected to the mainland in 1763 creating the peninsula it is today.  The Italian influence is still present though as most of the towns and cities in Istria have Italian names and people here and there speak it.

We arrived as the sun was setting, about 8:30, into the port of Rovinj.  The sparkle of the town lights against the water and boats in the harbor were aaahhh inducing.

Harbor of Rovinj, Croatia

We emerged from the ferry for our first of many similar experiences to follow where we arrived at our destination and then had to drag our suitcases over large and small stone streets to our hotel.  It didn’t occur to me that we would face this obstacle, and it wasn’t so bad.  Although the loud clicking of the suitcase wheels on the stone streets made me feel bad for making so much noise, no one paid attention to us, so it must be a usual thing.  Most of the cities we visited in Croatia had historic old towns.   Cars, bicycles and motorcycles were nowhere to be seen.  How wonderful for small children, dogs and pedestrians in general!  Yes you had to watch out for small children and dogs but at least you were able to move slowly, looking up and around without also worrying about getting hit by a car or cyclist.  Our hotel had a golf cart but they were only allowed to use it a certain number of times during the day or they would get fined.

Our small hotel Villa Valdibora was in the old town.  There are no street signs in Rovinj and I didn’t have a map so we relied on directions from kind people.   We found the hotel, checked in and climbed 4 small flights of stairs to our room which looked out onto the street below.  We had a little kitchenette which was nice although we never used it.

After our welcome glass of Istrian sparkling wine, yum!, we looked for our dining destination that evening, Monte.  It was a pretty swank place with contemporary decor and food to match.  The food was delicious and the presentation creative. They brought us flatbread with a light smear of olive tapenade on it.  Instead of a regular plate a small branch rendered vertical by a flat wood base had two notches carved out on either side which held the flatbread.  Regular white dishes made appearances soon since we chose the 5 course Essence tasting menu.  It featured 3 seafood courses, 1 meat course followed by dessert:  tuna tartar with creme fraiche and radish; scampi with a fantastic beet root risotto; seabass with a king prawn and octupus followed by our meat courses, lamb and suckling pig.  Both were great as they had spices and accompaniments you would not expect.  I can’t remember them, sorry.  Our palate cleanser was a lemon meringue foam with something akin to Pop Rocks.  Remember how you weren’t supposed to eat Pop Rocks and drink Coke?  Urban legend?  Well that’s all I could think about in this fancy resto while the things popped around on my tongue. Dessert was chocolate sponge balls with fennel ice cream with white and milk chocolate.  This round dish-ramekin thing came out with a white disc on top which was the white chocolate.  The servers had little pitchers of warm milk chocolate which they poured onto the disc melting a hole and mixing both chocolates onto the chocolate sponge and ice cream inside.  Woo!  Oh and there was more chocolate at the end in the form of thin pieces of dark chocolate with pink peppercorn or milk chocolate with banana chips.  There was one with lavender but it wasn’t my favorite as it reminded me of a sachet.  I love the smell of lavender but not the eating because I think of potpourri or lotion.  Needless to say we slept well that night–die evil Jet Lag!

Monte was our introduction to a great white wine called Malvazija, or Malvasia, from Croatia.  It’s similar to a chardonnay.  We drank Malvazija all over Croatia.  We had some good reds but the Kozlovic Malvazija was it.  In fact I found some at Astor Wines here in New York, but it seems they no longer have it!

In the morning we climbed a few steep streets towards the hill in the center of the old town where the Church of St Euphemia sits.  From there we had a perfect view of the water and neighboring coast line.  The water was a beautiful blue that we would see again and again.  For lunch we sat at an outdoor picnic table and had an awesome spaghetti with lobster at Veli Joze.  We had a nice view of the water and could watch the people walking by.  There were a few restaurants perched right over the water but it didn’t feel necessary.

After lunch we checked out and got our rental car.  Over some wooded hills which were green and brown (brown from the 3 month drought they had) some 45 minutes later we came upon the town of Motovun.  Motovun sits on top of 908 foot tall hill in the middle of a valley.  The Venetians fortified it in the 14th century with 2 sets of walls.  Tourists pay to park about 600 yards away from the main sights, the Church of St Stephen and the town bell tower.  We were no exception.  We stayed at the Hotel Kastel, a restored 17th century palazzo, which is 100 feet from the church but we had to leave the car.  Fortunately the hotel has a small shuttle that came to get our luggage or else we would have had a nice trek up a steep hill.  We had a room with a balcony so we could look out into town and see the valley, very pretty.

We stayed 2 nights in Motovun and both nights we ate at the hotel restaurant which was good.  The standout though was our lunch in the town of Vrh.  Say it exactly how it looks vvrrhh.  The restaurant has the same name Vrh, so it’s easy to remember.  Now the listing says it’s in the town of Buzet but we entered the town of Vrh, so who knows.  We had their phone number so we were able to call for directions.  Yeah hoo!  We pigged out for lunch, no surprise.  It was always a challenge ordering because you ask for one thing then they suggest another and it sounds so good that you want that too.  We ate it all.  We were so full and felt disgusting but it was soo delicious.  There was the famous Istrian plate: Istrian style prosciutto, thicker and like jerky, with pecorino followed by the local, homemade pasta fuzi with black truffles (see below).  My God, it was tasty.  When they put the dish in front of us I couldn’t believe it.  So many truffles all for us!  Last we had Istrian beef, boskarin, cooked under a bell that was so tender and flavorful, with some potatoes and a salad.

Back to the truffles.  One does not think of Croatia when you say truffles.  You think Italy, France and Spain, but there are 3 kinds of black truffles and a white truffle growing in the forests of Istria.  Apparently an Italian soldier stationed in Istria in 1932 was walking around the woods and thought how similar the vegetation looked to his native region of Alba.  He came back with truffle hunting dogs, and voila!, an industry was born.  Black truffle season runs all year round and white truffle season from September through January bringing up to 3,000 people a year.  We had no idea when truffle season was so we asked with hesitation and hope if there were any dishes with truffles.  Indeed!  The fuzi with black truffles, well I have no words.  You may think I exaggerate when I say that the food was great everywhere we went but I’m not.  It was.

In a daze we went back to the hotel.  The next day we drove to the town of Rijeka to catch our ferry to Pag Island.  Coming up!

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