Istria's Gold: "Truffles of the Slovenian Istria are the best in the world"

Photo: Ratoša archive

November 2011

Hidden in the soil of the Slovenian Istria grow special, aromatic, mysterious mushrooms – white truffles. They are appreciated for their extraordinary quality and their prices reach almost incomprehensible heights. I spoke with Ivan Ratoša, one of the people who know most about them in our area. He is a man who loves truffles with all his heart and speaks of them with special a glow. He is a person from the coastal region who you enjoy talking to, regardless of whether it is the middle of the truffle season or not and regardless of the topic of the discussion. About truffles or casually.

"What is this year's truffle season like?" I ask Ivan Ratoša, a keen "prospector" and harvester of truffles as well as founder of the Beli tartuf (white truffle) society. "Due to the draught and slightly changed climate, this year's season was worse than usual." High buying prices also testify to the lower number of tubers. At the moment, the prices in the market span from 1,500 euros to several thousand euros for a kilogram of these mushrooms, he explains. If we consider the current market price of gold...

There is always a truffle season, the only question is which truffle is in season at what specific time. Namely, there are nine edible species and their harvesting seasons differ from one species to another. Truffle harvesting is thus spread out over the whole year. At the moment, it is the high season for harvesting truffles in the Slovenian Istria. Between September and January is the time when white truffles, which are a sort of crème-de-la-crème among truffles, grow. Actually, it is white truffles that gave truffles their glory and mystery. And this species is the most widespread in the Slovenian Istria. Although it is best used raw, it is also suitable for various truffle sauces and for preserves.

And what is a truffle?

Photo: Ratoša archive

It is the noblest mushroom in the world, Ivan Ratoša is convinced. A truffle is an underground mushroom, which has to be used with moderation, as a spice, on account of its extremely strong aroma. It grows under the surface and in its underground world it links itself with a tree or a bush, fastens to its roots and in this way obtains nutrients. This allows it access to chlorophyll which would otherwise be completely unobtainable underground. In Europe there are nine edible species, while there are also non-edible ones.

Their fame is supported by various imitations which are quite numerous in the market, since similar mushrooms grow also in other parts of the world, for example in Asia, but their qualities are far from comparable to the European and Slovene ones and also considerably different.

It is primarily in truffle sauces that we have to read ingredients carefully, as they may contain many other mushrooms, warns Ratoša. "In our country we still lack proper consumer protection in this respect. In the Beli tartuf society we support aims for consumer protection and we would like to safeguard the above-standard quality of the white truffle." Therefore he joined forces with Andrej Pitauer from the Institute for wild growing fungi and together they fight to adjust conditions of harvesting truffles in Slovenia. "We tend to forget that truffles from the Slovenian Istria are the best in the world. The structure of the soil is extremely important for the quality of the mushroom. But the Slovenian Istria's soil is so rich that even truffles have an outstanding flavour and aroma. This can be compared with the influence of the soil structure on the quality and flavour of wine. In surrounding regions we cannot find truffles of such quality, says Ratoša.

He has been harvesting them since his childhood, when he obtained his basic knowledge. A sort of institutionalization of his expertise is proved by diplomas from Zagreb and Italy, where he passed an examination in harvesting truffles. He hopes that such a procedure will also be required in Slovenia.

How does truffle harvesting take place?

Photo: Ratoša archive

I wonder, considering that they grow underground and so the classical collecting method probably doesn't prove effective. Truffles are harvested with a specially trained dog. Using a dog for harvesting is the most practical, as they can be guided and are easy to train, he explains. Then you go to the area where truffles grow. The dog smells them under the earth and you simply dig them out. But dogs have to be a special breed, a more gluttonous one, such as Labradors and retrievers. Of course it is important that they are rewarded after they have found a truffle, he says. Finding something so hidden to sight is a very special joy. With me it is more of a personal satisfaction which gives me a lot of determination and energy.

Anybody may now harvest truffles in Slovenia, as they are no longer protected. Until this changes, the same rules apply as for other mushrooms – anybody may harvest two kilograms at most for personal use. As a professional harvester of truffles he is of the opinion that the state ought to regulate this as soon as possible. This is a small sector in which, however, a lot of money circulates. Just look at Slovenian inns, they are all offering some truffle dishes. This must be regulated. And most of all, people have to become aware of what the real thing is. Many sellers cheat consumers and thus reap huge profits selling inferior goods as high quality and in this way take advantage of the veil of mystery which truffles are shrouded in.

Yes, truffles have from old stirred spirits and imagination, instigated through that cover of excitement connected to their harvesting. Each ground is also not proper, although it is the most important part. It seemed to me that Ratoša preferred to avoid my question when I asked him where his grounds were. After all, in Slovenia, where people like all sorts of mushrooms, even a random picker will not confide in you where they were picked. As Ratoša says, some features at the grounds can be noticed by the naked eye, and a lot depends on the feeling, but experience is most important.  That is why all this seems a little bit mysterious.

Truffle's almost mythical dimensions. Truffles are rich in protein. A pronounced smell and aroma are their trademark. Moreover, truffles have strong pheromone aromas, which means that something attracts you, but you don't know exactly what it is. And maybe this is the reason of "those" features which were attributed to truffles in the past (well, today is no different). Anyway, you like them or you don't. Truffles seem to leave nobody indifferent, one way or the other.

Truffles as food

Photo: Ratoša archive

Truffles are used as spices, since they are highly valued and also very aromatic. There are several hundreds of recipes and each chef has something of his own. Personally, I prefer noodles with truffles, eggs with truffles or polenta with eggs and white truffles on top, says the truffle harvester. They are best freshly grated on a dish. They are grated in a similar way as carrots. They have a distinctive and typical flavour and aroma. This is something where we cannot be cheated.

Otherwise, there are many cheaters who try, in their lust for profit, selling inferior specimens as top quality. Especially problematic are oils, which mostly have truffle aroma and not much more. That's why consumers have to be educated. Namely, only few people know where truffles come from and what they are. Our domestic ones are certainly among the best in the world. Yet tastes differ, you know, everybody prides himself on his own goods. But those who know the ropes, know what is of value in the world. This year, when the harvest is poor, everybody is happy if there is something of such a quality as offered by the Slovenian Istria, explains Ratoša.

When there are plenty of truffles, the buying prices are clearly lower and sometimes it is even difficult to sell them.

The person I speak with is a true expert on truffles.  He spent most of his life as an inn keeper and they always had dishes with truffles on the menu. You certainly get to know sooner or later, which are better and which worse, the value of individual specimens. Since his retirement, he has harvested them sometimes with more zeal and sometimes with less. I consider picking truffles as a form of recreation and exercising in nature. I prefer to go picking truffles than to go to the gym or tennis grounds. And the underground conditions allow their harvesting practically all year round. Truffles as underground mushrooms have a different life than those growing on the surface.

He says that he is completely in love with the Istrian truffle and devoted to it wholeheartedly. That's why he works hard for its protection and primarily for the protection of its good name.

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Text by Polona Prešeren, Sinfo, November 2011 

Photo: Darinka Mladenovič and Ratoša archive