Istria – the largest peninsula in the Adriatic – is said to be akin to Tuscany, and indeed there are plenty of similarities between the Italian region and the green inland stretches of Istria adorned with medieval villages crowning the finely contoured landscape of cypress trees, vineyards and olive groves. But the Croatian peninsula has two faces, and the other is the blue Istria, with its more than 500 kilometres of Mediterranean coastline. Nature has been generous to both, and the overall balance and harmony of the blue and the green have produced a rich and varied cuisine which, today, draws gastro-tourists from around the world.
In particular, the golden days of autumn are days to sample and savour the jewel of the region's fine gastronomy. Throughout the year, a number of species of black truffle grow in this pretty land with its medieval villages, Roman ruins and fishing villages, but autumn is the season for the finest of them all: the tuber magnatum pico, the queen of Istrian cuisine. This magnificent underground mushroom is the most expensive in the world, with prices reaching up to 3,000 € – that's around ￡2,500.
There's no indication above ground of the buried treasure that lies beneath the surface in the oak forest of Motovun and around Buzet, but trained dogs can sniff them out. The largest truffle ever found in the Motovun forest weighed in 1.31 kilos and merited a place in the Guinness Book of World Records. There's no need to go hunting, though, as you can be assured that all through the year Istrian restaurants – not all of which require deep pockets – offer a chance to sample meat, fish and pasta dishes, and even some desserts, garnished with truffle. The most famous and expensive of all is Zigante in Livade, where the whole menu from beginning to end features the underground delicacy.
The white truffle season opens in late September and from then onwards until November, in Motovun, Livade and Buzet it's truffle time, and throughout the area homage is paid to the queen of Istrian cuisine: Motovun Truffle Festival is held from 9-16th October, while on the 23rd, Livade celebrates the regional fair, the Tuberfest, now in its eighteenth year; in Buzet, the true truffle capital, the first weekend in November is a culinary extravaganza of dishes and recipes which feature the delicacy. These are just three events where you can discover the star of the Istrian table, whose pedigree goes back to classical times as its intense flavour and was known to ancient Greek and Roman emperors, as well as later being served at the French court and to Austro-Hungarian aristocracy.
And when you head back home, don't forget to take a true Istrian souvenir with you: why not call in at one of the specialised delicatessens – Imela in the small city of Hum, Miro Tartufi in Motovun, or one of the branches of Zigante and take your pick from the variety of preserved, bottled, dried and fresh truffles, whose pungent flavour adds its personality to so many dishes. Or try, too, the fine oils, and wines that are also essential ingredients of Istrian cuisine.