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.Continued...