ISTRIA — This sizable peninsula in northwestern Croatia that juts like an old Roman spearhead into the Adriatic Sea attracts a suspicious number of superlatives. Travel virtuosos will tell you that Istria is the truffle capital of the world, the olive oil capital, and the Muscat capital; that it contains better examples of well-preserved antiquities than its neighbors; that it offers an unparalleled showcase of medieval hilltop towns that, aside from the fresh pastels of dwellings, look as they did centuries ago.
When three of us visited last spring, lured by a Croatian travel group’s inducement to bike “Unexplored Istria,” it didn’t take us long to realize there’s more than a grain of truth to these accounts.
Istria began to take possession of us one chilly night as we sat beside an open fire in the “konoba” restaurant of a family-run farmhouse-inn, the Casa Romantica La Parenzana, near the northern village of Buje. “Konoba” refers to Dalmatian kitchens of old where native foods and liquors were prepared and stored next to a family’s farm tools. Today an authentic Croatian konoba — owners must register them — is an eating place that, casual and home-like, captures the essence of Istria’s hard-working agrarian society: exceedingly flavorful foods grown, prepared, and served with care.
Two of us had a dish we agreed was beyond compare: cheese-filled ravioli, one portion served with asparagus sauce, the other with mushroom sauce, suffused with truffles. Although hunting season for white truffles is restricted to fall, black truffles are collected year-round and pop up everywhere, even in liqueurs and ice cream.
In spring, Istria’s succulent wild asparagus also is omnipresent. Spears of asparagus and bits of prosciutto even popped up every breakfast in a scrambled-egg dish.
Our Casa Romantica waiter mentioned, in respect to our meal, “You know you’re in occupied Italy.” He no doubt was referring to Istria having been part of Italy several times in the past, most recently from 1919-43. Thus, the very similar food sensibility. Istrians are positively studious about how they make their pastas, whether with or without eggs, or from potatoes. But it’s also true that it was thanks to Italian soldiers marching through Istria during World War II that Istrians learned about the buried “gold” in their midst, the truffle.
After a sublime lemon semifreddo, we were served cordials of mistletoe grappa. Grappa’s basic ingredient is grape leavings from wine-making, the brew further enhanced by another fruit or sweet. Every night thereafter, whether at a konoba or a regular restaurant, we encountered the same tradition of on-the-house homemade grappa: plum, blueberry, almond, or honey flavored, each delicious.
In 1995, Istria’s board of tourism decided to focus on the local agriculture and “attractive gastronomy.” Since then, dozens of konobas have opened as have village stores and roadside stands stocked with truffles and truffle paste, honeys, wines, oils, cheeses, pasta, and other local specialties. Especially from May through October, Istria fairly hums with wine and olive oil tastings, Asparagus Days, and festivals honoring the truffle and even the morel.
Istrians take great pleasure in such events, as we witnessed one Sunday at a wine-tasting at Konoba Rino in Momjan, a town that began as a 12th-century castle built on a high cliff. A small crowd had gathered to sample a neighbor’s harvest, and when the accordion started up, so did the dancing.
That the Yugoslav war of the 1990s never crossed into Istria but stayed 300 miles away might explain a certain glad mood among Istrians. During that period, wages in many households held steady and tourism on the peninsula thrived, which is why so many historic sites and museums are renovated and flourishing.
Given the excellent local wines, crisp Croatian beers, and nightly grappas, we didn’t exactly teetotal our way through Istria, and yet, none of us ever had so much as a smidgeon of a hangover. We suspect it had something to do with Istrians sticking to basic, fresh ingredients. The arugula, the milk and butter, vegetables and meats — foods simply tasted better than our own fare, most everything produced within a few miles of the table they land on.
New on the menu at La Parenzana was a red beer from Istria’s first microbrewery. Its label certified that it had been prepared “according to German law on beer purity dated from 1516.” Also available were Istria’s renowned wines, its Malvasia whites descended from medieval times, its Taren reds, and its legendary Muscats.
A memorable moment at La Parenzana occurred when a farmer appeared carrying a massive pig leg, a present for diners at the next table. The farmer proudly told us the ham had taken two years to cure. Istrian prosciutto, so gamey, spicy, and tender, makes you realize that most prosciutto you buy at home is remarkably tasteless.
The secret behind Istrian “pršut,” according to Guido Schwengersbauer, La Parenzana’s owner, is that “it is dried with just air, no smoke. In winter, we put it under the roof, so it is exposed to the bora, the winter wind, and in the summer, we put it in the cellar.”
When Schwengersbauer and his family opened La Parenzana in 2006, “Our idea was to bring back the real food of Istria,” he explained, antecedents for which lie in Italian, Austro-Hungarian, and Balkan culinary methods. “Fish, meat, pasta, fresh fruits, and wild vegetables from the woods.”
Although we had come to Istria to bike, the biking proved so arduous that after three days we decided we had used up our nine lives and opted instead to enjoy the local towns on foot. It’s not hard to understand why Istria has become a biking destination; hundreds of miles of old Roman roads and defunct rails have been transformed into biking trails. (See www.istria-bike.com. ) But beware. As someone had warned us, European self-directed bike trips labeled “moderate” are apt to be “difficult.”
And so we went from getting lost on forest trails to losing ourselves in Istria’s past. Due to its seaside location, Istria got enfolded into the Roman Empire, then the Byzantine Empire, and later was the object of desire of Venetians and Hapsburgs, Croats, and citizens of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Not surprisingly, buried in this history are the seeds for Istria’s current agrarian achievements.
In the southern city of Pula, at the magnificent Roman coliseum — reportedly, the best preserved Roman arena still standing — the Istrians have created a unique museum underground that tells how the peninsula became one of the Roman Empire’s most important producers of olives, oils, wines, garum (fish sauce), and other products, and how today’s farmers have benefited from inherited lessons.
Pliny the Elder declared Istria’s olive oil to be of superior quality some 1900 years ago, and it would seem not much has changed.
On one of our biking days, we pedaled into Livade, home of an annual truffle festival, and lunched at Restaurant Zigante, a linen-tablecloth establishment revered for its truffle dishes. On a pedestal inside its entrance sits a melon-sized white truffle that, unearthed by Giancarlo Zigante in 1999, set a Guinness record for its 2.88 pounds.
After enjoying a hearty wild duck soup with black truffles as well as black-truffle tagliatelle, we lingered over the specialty of the house, black truffle ice cream, by now thoroughly convinced that all the raves about Istria are well founded.