By Missy Johnston on Oct 22, 2019 — While on a yacht charter, by including Pula or Rovinj, both of which are historic coastal towns in Istria, it is so easy to head inland for an afternoon or a day further into Istria as this is a region not to be missed. Once part of Italy, Istria is now a historic and cultural region of Croatia; however, the people, their language, lifestyle and cuisine, still retain many strong Italian roots. Italian is still spoken, along with Croatian, and a local dialect which is a combination of Italian and Croatian. It is the rich Roman and Medieval history in Pula, Rovinj, and inland in Motovun and the abundance of a natural harvest that makes this area well worth exploring and enjoying by walking, hiking, and looking around every corner, while dining, tasting, and sampling fabulous Istrian traditional foods laced with Istrian Truffles, olive oils, and honey, accompanied by lovely Istrian wines.
1. Traditional cities, towns and villages
Pula was the center of Roman life in this area of the Empire with a huge Roman Arena, most of which is still standing today, where Romans came from miles around to see huge sporting events. The Medieval Old Town of Pula has a lovely square with a free standing Roman Temple. Rovinj has two harbors, and a lovely Old Town capped by a church holding the sarcophagus of their patron saint that died around 300+ AD. The sarcophagus holding the body of the saint floated into the harbor sometime in 900+ AD and the village claimed the saint as their own.
Today, anyone in Rovinj on March 16th, can see the very well preserved body of the Saint lying in the sarcophagus opened for viewers. Inland, Motovun, a lovely Medieval village perched on the top of a mountain, is larger than Eze, France, and is still a working everyday village with one lone cobblestone road winding its way to the interior fortress building at the top. Today there is a luxury hotel at the top and several Baroque style buildings within the fortress and restaurants built into the fortress walls. The views of the surrounding countryside from the top are outstanding and a just reward for anyone that makes their way up the winding road to the pinnacle.
The Motovun Forest in Istria is the perfect growing ground for both white and black truffles and is where many locals make their living as Truffle Hunters. Today trained dogs are used for Truffle Hunting as while pigs had a great nose to find truffles, pigs loved to eat their find which made the pigs happy, but was very counterproductive for the Truffle Hunter.
Hence the switch to dogs, which are seriously trained, and bred within the same family lines for generations so that each dog knows to drop the truffle into the hands of the Hunter once dug. And generational passage is the same for the Truffle Hunters. Parents pass the art of Truffle Hunting down through the generations so that families that reside in the Motovun Forest area might be multi-generational Truffle Hunters. Black Truffles are hunted year around, however White Truffles have only grown large enough each year from September to the end of December or whenever it becomes too cold for the more delicate White Truffles to survive the mountain cold, as at some point, while the Black Truffle will survive and grow year around, the White Truffle will die from cold, and a new White Truffle will start growing again in the spring. During White Truffle season every able bodied Truffle Hunter is out hunting the more lucrative and aromatic White Truffle, while other times of the year some Truffle Hunters might have other jobs to supplement their incomes and might not always be hunting for Black Truffles.
If your yacht charter is in Croatia in September, heading inland to the Motovun Forest in Istria for fresh White Truffles is a superb treat as enjoying an aromatic white truffle shaved over your food will be at a lower cost than any where else in the world.
However, visiting at anytime for fresh Truffles in pasta or shaved over eggs or steak or to purchase Truffle Oils, freeze dried Truffles, or Truffle Honey, a real treat to try drizzled on a soft ripened cheese, is an outstanding experience. Zigante Restaurant, in the Michelin Guide, has a great menu featuring Truffles, and a shop where many Truffle products are sold that they make in their nearby factory. Zigante also offers a Truffle Hunting Exhibition. This is an exhibition only, as the undergrowth in the forest is too dense to traipse through and Truffles are not easy to find. The Exhibition is one hour long and consists of riding a little red land train out to the Motovun Forest, where all are met by an experienced Truffle Hunter and his trained dogs near a path that has been cut into the woods. A white and black truffle have been planted along the path in locations that the Truffle Hunter knows, but the dogs do not, and as all follow the Truffle Hunter along the path, the Truffle Hunter gives the dogs a series of commands to go in the right direction where the dogs do have to find where the truffles have been buried with their noses. And the dogs do sniff out, find and dig up both Truffles. While not real, it is very informative, the dogs do find the buried truffles and dig them up, so all see how dogs find and dig up Truffles, and usually other “real” Truffle Hunters can be seen in the woods hard at work. This is certainly a rare chance to learn all about Truffles and enjoy Truffles prepared in a variety of ways without a weighing machine coming out of the closet to weigh each slice of Truffle or with the expectation of an exorbitant bill.
3. Olive oil
Istrian natives take their olive oil very seriously. Istria has been named the ‘Best Olive Oil Region’ by the 2019 Flos Olei olive oil guide, an honor the region has enjoyed now for the fourth year running. The 2019 edition lists 79 top Istrian olive oils. Chiavalon Ex Albis, Brist Exclusive Selection, Oliva Lucia Select, Terra Rossa, and B10 First Night are five terrific well known Istria Olive Oils, where each Olive Oil Press can be visited for olive oil tastings.
Rather than picking the olives in October, waiting a month and then pressing the olives, as is traditional, in Istria, the olives are picked in November, and then same day cold pressed with machinery for a light green olive oil with a lovely flavor evocative of fresh green beans. In fact, this olive oil has become so popular, many in the rest of Croatia are adapting to the same manner of waiting until November to pick and then same day cold machine pressing the olives. Olive trees are a fabulous tree to cultivate for a crop, as the average tree lives for 500 years, and some can live for 1500 years. So once the tree is planted, generations will have olive oil from their trees, and by planting more, the family olive oil production just increases without a worry of attrition.
All through Istria are signs on the side of the road, or advertisements to stop and try farm pressed olive oil as every farm house produces their yearly supply of their own olive oil and sells any overage. As after all, all it took was one industrious ancestor or maybe two to have planted a field of trees and many generations of the family will have olive oil. Up to you whether you stick with the well known top quality olive oils to try, or wander onto some of these little farms to try their vernacular olive oils, some of which also advertise tasting Donkey Milk.
4. Shell farms
In Lim Bay, which is actually more of a fjord, as it pierces so deeply into the coast, are several shell farms growing oysters and black mussels. Also growing wild in Lim Bay are spiny cockles, wild baby clams that are dug out of the sand and scallops. And of course, as Croatia is not at all over fished, there are plenty of fresh fish of all kinds.
Right at the head of Lim Bay sitting by themselves in the countryside, are Viking Restaurant and Fjord Restaurant that both specialize in fresh seafood of all sorts, but especially very fresh oysters and mussels that come from a shell farm just a stone’s throw away, and other wild shellfish collected from Lim Bay, which is right there, along with fresh fish. All of the seafood is served in a variety of different manners, except with cocktail sauce, which is only an American condiment, and really all is so fresh and brimming with sea water, that just a little squeeze of lemon, if anything at all, is all that is needed.
5. Fertile land
The land in Istria is very fertile; filled with citrus, olive and fruit tree groves, along with many different flowers, lavender, and various other herbs that grow wild, with over 1200 species of herbs it is said that grow wild in the countryside. All of which bees love. Many Istria locals keep bee hives, and a variety of honey, depending on what the hives might be near, is collected and sold, along often with the honey comb.
Honey can be found with piece of the comb in the honey jar, or a very nice presentation, but not easily transportable, is a large piece of comb set on end, with the honey draining down through a small sieve set at the bottom of the comb, to be collected into a pot of nice clean honey for morning toast. And there are a wide variety of beeswax products sold, that are very good quality solid beeswax, such as candles which will burn clean and clear and homemade beeswax polishes. There are many different choices of honey available, however a particular favorite is lavender honey, which is very good drizzled over soft ripened cheese.
Grape vines are everywhere in Istria, and Istrian wines are growing in importance.
5 Istrian wines won a Gold Medal at the 2018 Decanter World Wind Awards (DWWA) which are:
· Franković Corona Sur lie Malvazija 2016
· Cattunar, Collina Malvazija 2015
· Cosetto, Prima Luce 2017
· Fakin, Teran 2017
· Anđelini Domenico Cuvee 2015
All over Istria are wineries and signs to wineries, including the wineries producing these 5 award winning wines are advertising tastings. The wineries are either well developed or just a single building depending on what the Owner has decided to do. However, the soil and the sun are producing excellent grapes. It is said there are 4 different soils in Istria, black, grey, white and red. Many of the grapes are planted in the red soil which is mineral laden, but vines are planted in the other soils as well, each with its own characteristics, all of which affect the taste of the wine. At the various wineries, the vintners are sure to tell you what the various characteristics the four different soil colors lend to the final taste of their wines and why they choose to grow their grape vines in the color of soil in which the vines are growing.
Cruise to Pula as a first yacht charter stop in Istria and then on to disembark in Rovinj, or embark on your yacht charter in Rovinj, however either way, be sure to include time inland in Istria, a unique combination culturally and historically of Italy and Croatia with fertile land producing Truffles, and wine grapes, plenty of blooming trees, flowers and herbs to keep the bees busy producing honey, groves of olive trees growing olives being picked and same day cold machine pressed in November, and great locations for shell farms for domestic oysters and mussels to be farmed side by side with wild cockles and scallops in Istria, Croatia, a land of plenty.