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.
Ann Parson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.