Food & Drink
2018 White Truffle Season is off to a good start
The season for white truffles is short, beginning in September and running into early in the year and the majestic tuber is found in very few parts of Europe - Northern Italy, small parts of Southern France and Croatia, particularly Istria.
Right across the growing regions last season was one of the worst in recent memory with connoisseurs having to pay the hugely inflated prices caused by the shortage.
The great news for 2018 is that the season is now open and Istrian truffle hunters are quietly optimistic. They are finding the tubers and as the warm Autumn weather continues the finds are getting bigger. Everybody dreams of finding a record-breaker. After all, one of the biggest ever - a Guinness-record holder - was found just down the road in Livade. The Truffle Days Festival there runs every weekend from September until the end of November.
A Spring delicacy
Wild asparagus is one of the first treats of the year to emerge in the woods around Oprtalj.
In the Palazzo kitchen the first picking of the season is lightly boiled and the asparagus water is added to vegetable stock which is then used to make a risotto with the tender tips added when the rice is cooked.
The typical Istrian asparagus dish is fritaja where it is added to a type of scrambled egg. The delicate flavour of wild asparagus also perfectly complements pasta.
The season is short and usually lasts until the end of April or beginning of May but it is possible to continue eating asparagus after the end of the season if there is enough to blanch and freeze for use in sauces later in the year.
Wild asparagus picked in the woods below the Palazzo in early March and late May
All sorts of Mediterranean fruits, vegetables, salads and herbs grows throughout the Summer in Istria. Strings of fresh garlic and chillis hang from stalls in the markets and by the roadsides alongside fresh cherries and strawberries. Go early to the open-air markets and take your pick of the best local produce and fish landed that morning at nearby harbours.
If you want a break from the kitchen, why not book to one of the recommended local hostelries below and treat yourselves.
This selection is listed in order of distance from the Palazzo
Please note - some of the following restaurants do not accept credit or debit cards
on the town square, just two minutes walk from the front gate of the Palazzo. Their motto is "Farm to Table, Organic and Local" and their very reasonably-priced menu offers various cuts of locally-reared beef, lamb and veal, game dishes, pasta, pizza and maneštra
- Istrian minestrone soup. Some evenings when it is not too busy (or all the guests are sitting outside) you may find the staff and chef sitting at a long table rolling and cutting the home-made pasta. The atmosphere indoors is cozy and the place is often full of locals having a meal or chatting at the bar over a beer or a pelinkovac -
an Istrian liqueur flavoured with herbs. The extensive outdoor seating on the square is comfortable and shaded in the daytime. The owners, Sandro and Suzana, and the waiters speak English. Mob: 09229 905 16 (closed Mondays out of season). www.konobaoprtalj.com
is under the old Venetian Town Loggia which has a terrace with a lovely westward view across the valley. They serve simple fresh typically Istrian home-cooking with platters of cheese and cured meats, pasta and meat dishes. The owners, the Coslovich family, have good connections to local mushroom and truffle hunters and if there are fresh finds they'll find their way to the Loggia kitchen. They also produce wine and olive oil and have a shop in Oprtalj, where tastings can be arranged. English and Italian are spoken. http://www.coslovich.com/index_en.html
Agroturismo Tončić in Zrenj is 6km away, just across the valley from Oprtalj. Take the road towards Buje and turn right in Sv. Lucia following the road to Zrenj (aka Stridone). Follow signs to Tončić. This family-run business offers excellent fresh seasonal produce, much of it from the family farm, prepared in traditional dishes. It is essential to book and the owner, Sandro, speaks good English, Italian and German. Tel: 052 644 146. Mob: 09120 605 12.
Gostiona Tartuf in Livade (6km) is a konoba (taverna) offering all sorts of dishes incorporating black and white truffles which are found in the valley. Try the plate of a selection of cheeses and cured meats which is delicious. The owner, Darko, speaks some English and his wife is more fluent. The also speak Italian and German. Mob: 09590 332 32
also in Livade. The largest white truffle in the world was found in the Mirna valley by a member of the Zigante family who run a shop and restaurant in Livade. The shop is well worth visiting. Look out for the truffle oil and jars of minced truffle and wild mushrooms which are particularly good value. The restaurant is excellent if somewhat expensive. Tel: 052 664 302. www.zigantetartufi.com
Konoba Elena in Gradinje (7km) opened in 2015 and is a new addition to our local restaurants although the chef is well-known in the area. It comes highly recommended for its menu and good value. It is closed on Mondays. Drive to Livade and turn left at the small roundabout in the village following signs to Gradinje. Tel: 052 654 424
also in Gradinje is good for fish and pasta dishes. It is closed on Tuesdays. Drive to Livade and turn left at the small roundabout in the village following signs to Gradinje. Tel: 052 664 091. www.konobadolina.hr/en/
in Kaštel (aka
Castelvenere) is about 16km away. Take the road towards Buje and turn right at the end of the village of Kremenje. When you reach the main road turn right and the restaurant is on the road on the right opposite the large car park. It has a great atmosphere and the family’s love of seafood and their home-produced charcuterie shines through on the menu. Book with Adele, who speaks English and Italian. Tel: 052 777 280. Mob: 09832 0362. www.bassanese-kastel.hr
in Brtonigla (22km) specialises in fish and meat cooked on an open fire. The owner, Nino, will tell you what is available on a daily basis and booking is essential. Drive to Buje and through the centre of town following the road to Umag. About 2 km after Buje turn left uphill to Brtonigla. The restaurant is on the left up an outside staircase. Tel: 052 774 384. www.konoba-astarea-brtonigla.com
Alto in Karojba (14km). Tel: 052 683 476.
in Buje on the town square (18km). Also offers a gluten-free menu. Tel: 052 772 898. www.rondo-buje.com
Aquarius in Buje on the road towards Umag after Konzum supermarket. Tel: 052 773 417.
We buy our wine from a local grower, Damir Vizintin. You will find him at the family vineyard, San Zvanini, in Sv. Ivan about 2 km from Oprtalj. Take the road to Buje and just after Sv. Lucia turn left off the main road to Sv. Ivan following the road to the end where you will find his San Zvanini vineyard. He will give you a tour and tasting session and his wine costs around 40 kuna - under £4 - a bottle. He has a selection of red wines. Some are a full-bodied blend of local grape varieties and he also produces single grape Refosk and Teran - both local varieties. His white wine, using the Istrian Malvazija grape, is light and refreshing. He also produces small quantities of rosé wine and Muscat which are excellent. Damir speaks Italian and a little English. His contact number is: +385 (0) 9151 443 70. Call him in advance of visiting.
Istrian cooking is a fusion of dishes inspired by the many cultures which have ruled and left their mark on the peninsula. The Venetian and Italian influences are the must obvious with pasta, minestrone-type soups - maneštra - and pršut - the local variety of prosciutto. The Austrian rulers would have appreciated the Istrian love of desserts and the skill of the bakers with tiny warm sweet doughnuts - fritule - and cruncy biscuits - krostule - part of every festival and celebration.
The raw materials for Mediterranean and even Middle Eastern cuisine grow easily in the region which produces dark green olive oil, all types of herbs, chilis, aubergines, tomatoes, walnuts, almonds, citrus, soft and stone fruits.
The wooded hills produce a year-round variety of wild mushrooms in addition to the most famous Istrian product of all, Truffles - both black and white - which are chiefly found in the Mirna valley area, some 6km from Oprtalj. Black truffles are collected year round and used in a variety of dishes including pasta, fritaja (see below) and flaked on top of cuts of grilled meat.
White truffles are rarer and have a short season from September till the end of the year. In addition to being used fresh in various dishes, the precious white truffles are preserved in sauces made with wild mushrooms and olive oil. A pot of this and a bottle of truffle oil are tasty reminders of Istria when you get home.
When visiting a restaurant in the region it is worth trying the typical Istrian dishes.
Pršut - the pride of Istria with protected status is ham which is wind-dried in the fierce bura wind for six months and then dry-cured in a closed dark place;
Kobasice sausages are cured and can be eaten grilled or added to pasta dishes;
Fritaja (see below - also served with local sausage, prsut and wild mushrooms);
Beef reared in the province rivals the best available anywhere. All cuts are worth trying but the fillet is unbelievably tender and tasty and a Fiorentina is large enough to feed three or four people. Grilled cuts are often served in the Autumn with shaved fresh Istrian white or black truffles or during the rest of the year with a crust of truffle paste;
Maneštra is a wonderful meal-in-a-bowl soup - the local version of minestrone - made with beans, vegetables, pasta and cured pork;
Fuži - small rolled tubes of pasta served with truffles or a rich meat sauce;
Platters of assorted cured meats, olives and cheeses flavoured with truffles;
Wild asparagus, found in woodlands from March until May, is used in a variety of dishes during the season. It is also occasionally preserved and used out of season in sauces.
The following website highlights some of Istria's best food and restaurants and lists food and wine festivals across the province www.istria-gourmet.com/en
Palazzo Portole's Maxi-Peka
The peka is the iconic Croatian cooking implement and they come in all shapes, sizes and design. This is the biggest, heaviest - the most extreme - and the best we've found. The lid alone weighs about 30kg.
The peka is usually made of metal - the heavier the better - with a large shallow base and a domed lid. It is cooked in an open wood fire on a layer of hot ash with embers placed on top of the dome so there is an even heat all around the ingredients.
The classic peka dish is a mixture of vegetables, potatoes, onions and mixed meats - veal, lamb and chicken for example - olive oil, white wine and copious quantities of herbs. We've tried fish and various meat combinations in the Maxi-Peka and we've found that the best results are achieved with lamb, vegetables and potatoes.
The following photographs were taken of the cooking of half of the first Spring lamb of the season, cut into fairly large chunks, mixed with the above ingredients and masses of fresh rosemary and marjoram from the Palazzo garden.
1 2 3
1 The peka ready for the fire.
2 On the fire with hot ashes on the top.
3 After about an hour the dish is opened and white wine is added. It is then covered for about 40 minutes more.
This peka is so large you can feed 10-12 people from it and fish can also be used as an alternative to meat, although meat is the recommended ingredient.
Maxi-Peka Man, our local expert, can assist in all stages of the cooking process including sourcing ingredients, building and tending the fire, lifting the peka and manipulating the lid.
The main fireplace in the castle can be used
The stone-built barbecue in the garden by the shaded loggia is also a good place for peka cooking