Where a Truffle-Seeking Dog Is Man’s BFF
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because what foodie doesn’t dream of foraging for a delicacy?
We’re tramping through a damp forest in northern Croatia. The young, half-bored guide in front is giving directions that sound like “shoe, shoe, shoe” to a dog named Blackie, whose nose is pressed to the ground as years of practice have ingrained. At last, Blackie starts pawing at the dirt but is nudged aside for the sake of the tourists — and so the pooch doesn’t ruin our prize. I reach down and dig out a hunk of black truffle, a pricey flavor bomb prized by chefs the world over. Then our guide, Ivan, takes it back and tosses it in his pouch. The Karlic family does not allow finders keepers.
And that’s just fine. An epic truffle feast justifies the roughly $144 for an unforgettable two-person tour (per-person prices decrease for bigger groups). We had arrived by train the day before in Buzet, the locus of the Istria region’s truffle country. Truffles can be found on just about anything in area restaurants — you must give in to truffle ice cream — and are relatively affordable, given their local sourcing. From Buzet, it’s a brief, scenic car ride out to the blink-and-you-miss-it town of Paladini and the hillside Karlic house.
We foolishly ate breakfast before heading out to the hunt, not expecting the pregame meal: truffle omelet, truffle cheese and sausage, bread dipped in truffle oil. It’s washed down with wine and several samples of house-made brandy. So what if it’s 10:30 in the morning? Hunters need their fuel.
Surely, their cheese must be some local delicacy that we would have to special order. “FEE-la-del-fia,” she replies.
It had rained the day before, making for better truffle-hunting conditions. We — well, Blackie did the work — ended up retrieving three black truffles, a fruitful expedition. The Karlic family has been in the business since 1966, and family members head out daily into the woods with one of 12 truffle-seeking dogs. Though pigs traditionally tracked the aromatic tubers, dogs have replaced them in recent years, in part because canines are less likely to eat the prize. It would make for costly animal feed: Black truffles are now about $150 per pound, says Kristina Petohleb of Karlic Tartufi. For the most coveted white truffles, which are far more potent, the number can rise into the thousands.
But even at such a price point, truffles are more mass-market than they used to be. While Europe is traditionally the prime truffle region, Australia is the rising star, says Ken Frank, executive chef and owner of La Toque in Napa, California. “Currently, there are so many great Australian winter truffles on the market that the prices are the lowest I’ve seen in a decade and the perfume is great,” says Frank, who loves preparing truffles simply with egg to let the flavor burst through.
Back at the house, the delectable brunch still dancing on the back of our tongues, we splurge on truffle-infused products. Our favorite part of the meal was a heavenly spread of black truffles and oil mixed with cream cheese. We ask Petohleb what kind of cheese they use so we can re-create this mixture back home in the U.S. Surely, it must be some local delicacy that we would have to special order. “FEE-la-del-fia,” she replies with a smile.
We pause for a moment. Oh, you mean “Philadelphia.” Yeah, we can track that down.