Oct. 5, 2015:
Our OAT tour had a free day today, and offered an optional tour that didn’t interest us. Instead, we booked our own tour. For several years, Jim and I have been interested in the Istrian peninsula , mostly because it is at the same latitude as Tuscany, and enjoys similar weather, and is becoming a growing vineyard area. So we booked a tour with Matijias through Tours by Locals. Jim and I subscribe to a newsletter about living abroad, and it compares the Istrian region of Croatia to Tuscany as it used to be fifty years ago. Our personal take was that it was more modern than that, but still a lovely area, and not nearly as tourist-invaded as Tuscany.
The Istrian peninsula is mostly made of limestone (karst) which comes in three colors: grey brown & red. The wine areas are the red areas (which seems logical). Matijias (“Mat”) picked us up at our hotel in Opatija at 9:00 in the morning and had a full day scheduled for us. We drove for about an hour through the grey limestone formations which then gave way to more distinct hills, nearly all of which had hilltop settlements crowned with walled cities and high church bell towers, just like in Tuscany and Umbria.
Our first stop was in the hill town of Hum, which bills itself as the smallest town in the world. Built in medieval times, the fort dates back to 12th Century, although its been added onto several times over the centuries. We enjoyed walking through its narrow (and short steep streets.
When we were done with the obligatory photos, we stepped inside one of the two shops in town and did some tasting of local products. Not only does this area produce some of the best wine in Croatia, the the whole area is a gastronomic wonder! We sampled some of the local distilled spirits including a brandy flavored with mistletoe, as wells as one flavored with honey and another with elderberry, as well as some honeys and jams. However, the product for which Istria is famous is the white truffle, and the store had samples of several preserved preparations of these little flavor bombs. Croatia is one of only a handful of countries which grow white truffles and they retail for about $400/kilo. The largest truffle ever found in Croatia was slightly over three pounds, and sold at auction for $68,000.
Speaking of truffles, our next activity was to join a truffle hunter (tartufero) and his dogs to see how truffles are found in the forest. Along the way, we passed several other hill towns such as Buzet and Motovun, which looked like they would be really fun to explore, so we mentally dropped a placeholder to visit them on our next next trip to Croatia.
We arrived in the forest of Motovun to go truffle hunting with Nikola and his dogs, Neli and Zara. Nikola first explained all about how he trains his dogs, and then took us into the forest. Apparently, dogs don’t naturally like the taste or smell of truffles, so they have to be gradually exposed to them and rewarded frequently to acquire a taste for them so they will go search them out. In a nutshell, a tatufero has to be pretty fast to keep up with the dogs because once they start digging, they will eat the truffle if not restrained. Also, according to truffle lore, truffles immediately lose some of their taste if the truffle is damaged in the extraction. At a minimum, the value has to be slightly diminished by canine marks!
We then drove a slight distance to the town of Cremenje for lunch at a restaurant named Marino. This restaurant, as many in Istria do, showcases truffles, and the owner of the restaurant also owns a nearby vineyard. We enjoyed an absolutely sinful lunch consisting of a charcuterie plate featuring locally produced cured meats and a fresh ricotta with truffles in it.
I had the pasta with white truffles and nearly died of rapture! Following lunch, we drove to the owner’s vineyard, and they allowed us to taste their wines at the vineyard, Kabola. They had probably the best Malvasjia we have had.
Next we drove to the Kozlovic winey, and had a very good tasting in the garden gazebo cantilevered over the vineyard. The views went on all the way to the tiny coastline of Slovenia.
Finally, we drove to the small hilltop town of Grožnjan, which is also an artists’ colony. While in town, we took a slight detour from wine tasting by sampling the olive oils at Cesar.
The olive oil production hadn’t yet kicked into full steam, but Cesar’s oils were still quintessentially green and peppery.
There are many different varietals of wine in Croatia, and the Istrian peninsula had even more varieties to add to the mix. In particular, one of the most popular varietals here is called Teran, which is a heavy red, and somewhat tannic, so it really needs to be drunk with food. Our final stop of the day was at the Benvenuti winery, and in our opinion, their Teran was the best. Benvenuti also a dessert wine- (Moscato) which was very good! The winery also makes a dessert wine out of Teran also but I didn’t like it as much.
Sadly, tomorrow we leave Istria and Croatia, but we have more adventures to look forward to in Slovenia. Stay tuned!