October 25, 2020 – It has long been the exclusive preserve of Istria, but the Zagreb truffle hunting season is in full swing, with ambitious tourism plans for its development.
A couple of years ago, I was enjoying lunch on the Lesic Dimitri terrace on Korcula with a main dish which included truffles.
“Did you know that there are truffles to be found over there on Peljesac?” asked my luncheon companion, motioning across the Adriatic towards the Peljesac Peninsula, a view a young Marco Polo would have enjoyed as a child.
Truffles on Peljesac? Really? I had never heard of truffles in Croatia outside of Istria, a region whose outstanding gourmet offer is defined by the exclusive funghi which is highly sought after in the finest restaurants in the world. Apart from Italy and Istria, I was not aware that truffles could be found anywhere else, certainly not on Peljesac.
On the contrary, said my friend confidently. And not only that, but he had heard that they are shipped to Istria and sold there.
The luncheon conversation sat locked away in my head until very recently, when I was writing an article about the excellent new tourism promotion synergy between Zagreb City and Zagreb Country Tourist Boards with their new initiative to combine their offer in one fabulous – and extremely informative website called Around Zagreb. Among the many activities on offer in and around the Croatian capital was truffle hunting.
(Photo credit Taliah Bradbury)
Zagreb truffles? Really? This sounded even less likely than Peljesac. I decided to investigate, and I discovered that not only was Zagreb truffle hunting a ‘thing’, with its own organised tours, but that there were official efforts underway to develop the Zagreb truffle hunting experience into an attractive and more widely available activity just a short drive from the centre. And the more I began to look into the Zagreb truffle scene, the more interested I became, culminating in a family day out in and around Velika Gorica, close to Zagreb Airport, yesterday.
Zagreb County Tourist Board director Ivana Alilovic took over the position recently and has been energetically looking at ways to add value and promotion to the considerable content in the region around the city. The Around Zagreb website is one concrete early result, but she was reportedly also very passionate about promoting the Zagreb truffle story, and she invited us along to take part in a hunt that was already organised.
It was quite a day.
A little online research and some conversations on the day filled me in with some useful information. Truffle hunting does indeed exist, and in various locations in oak forests around the capital – near Samobor, on Medvednica, and in Turopolje, near Velika Gorica, from where our day would begin and end. Some organised local truffle hunts have recently started, but the most results Google was showing for ‘Zagreb truffle hunt’ were tours to Istria starting from Zagreb.
Alilovic wants to change that by building up an eco-system of truffle tourism, which goes beyond the hunting experience itself. And while she has some way to go before achieving her goal, the building blocks are firmly in place, as we experienced on our refreshing visit to the forest, looking spectacular in its autumnal colours.
After meeting at an arranged spot in Velika Gorica, we followed Ivana into the forest to a delightful wooden house managed by Croatian Forests from where the event would begin.
In addition to the others taking part on their first hunt, we were also introduced to the dynamic duo, who ensured that our truffle-hunting day would be a success – Stjepan and Zagi, a truly fabulous team for five years now, of which much more below.
There followed an excellent presentation on truffles in the region and beyond, with the many questions from the audience being answered. Far from being a closely guarded secret, Zagreb truffles have been for sale on Dolac market for more than a decade now, and the 4 truffle hunters before us had many years experience trawling through the forests of the region in search of this black and white gold. It was interesting to note that just like Peljesac, they too supply the Istrian market, and it is only a relatively recent development that Zagreb restaurants have started to seriously order local truffles locally.
After all, a Zagreb truffle does not have the same aura of an Istrian truffle. A food blogger who was also on the hunt told us the amusing story of a famous player from the Croatian national team having dinner at a well-known Zagreb restaurant. Asking if the waiter could bring him a truffle to show his friends, the waiter returned with a Zagreb truffle, explaining that it had been locally procured. Smelling the truffle, the famous footballer expressed his dissatisfaction and requested a truffle that had come from Istria instead.
The waiter disappeared and returned with the truffle which had come from Istria. What a difference, the player exclaimed!
It was actually the same truffle. Sourced in Zagreb, sold to Istria, then sold to the Zagreb restaurant. Perception is everything…
Part of the plan to develop Zagreb’s truffle tourism opportunity is to build a network of supporting partners, all of whom have a role to play in providing richer content for the tourism experience.
Two local Turopolje restaurants, whose menus offer local truffle delicacies, were on hand to feed the hunting team with a selection of truffle dishes, starting with Prazetina from Velika Gorica, whose team was on hand to serve breakfast after our welcoming presentation, the highlight of which was scrambled eggs with black truffles.
It was time to hunt! Off we headed into the forest, before splitting up into four teams. I had already chatted to Stjepan a little and decided to stick with him. I was surprised to see him on his quad bike, as I had not expected truffle hunting to be quite like that. He explained that he was an invalid and confined to a wheelchair, and that truffle hunting was an escape from that reality. With his relationship with Zagi, it was clear that I had found a professional team who adored each other.
There are many more technical descriptions of truffle hunting online, and I don’t pretend to be an expert at all. I got the most joy watching the successful partnership of Stjepan and Zagi. Truffle hunting is quite literally like looking for a needle in a haystack. Unless you have a properly trained dog (Zagi started getting truffles in his food at a very early age five years ago), there is no chance you will ever find a truffle. With a well-trained dog, however…
Was it beginner’s luck? Literally within 20 seconds of entering the search area, Stjepan released Zagi, who ran about 20 metres and started digging. At this point, he was called off so that he did not destroy the truffle. Zagi was more than happy to be called off, as he headed to his master to be rewarded with a treat for his work.
It was a great start, with an impressively-sized black truffle to give us encouragement.
What a great partnership! The search for a needle in a haystack, with Zagi’s trained nose the only hope. His effortless efforts reveal the hidden locations to bring joy to his owner, who rewards his efforts with treats which bring canine joy. Perfect!
There were several kids on the hunt who were enjoying themselves immensely, but nobody could keep up with Zagi, who went off in all directions in search of treasures to please his master. It would have taken a videographer more skilled than me to capture the highlights, but here he is from distance, having found truffle number four.
Some TCN photographers at the scene were taking things a little more seriously than I normally do…
In addition to the truffles, the wealth of mushrooms on show was striking. Perhaps something to think about combining into the tourism offer? A mushroom and truffle hunt, with the best of the edible mushrooms and truffles finding their way to your dinner plate after the hunt.
To my shame, I had never been to Velika Gorica before (unless you count Zagreb Airport), and I certainly was not expecting to find what awaited us at lunch. A Michelin-recommended restaurant which specialises in seafood due to the Sibenik County origins of the family which own it. Opened in 1994, it has been on the Michelin list for the last three years, and Bruno Ceronja is continuing what his father started to produce a memorable gourmet experience.
One of the luncheon ingredients was presented to us before we ordered – a 135-gramme Turopolje white truffle.
In my opinion, Croatia should be marketing itself on the basis of safety, authentic experiences, and lifestyle. And for an authentic gourmet experience, combining local flavours with his Sibenik roots, Bruno pulled out all the stops.
Home-made bread with his domestic olive oil – we could try both the 2020 harvest, above (5 days old) or the 2019 harvest. There was a spiciness to both which I have not come across too often in Dalmatian olive oils – delicious.
Rather than choose from the menu, we followed the excellent waiter’s suggestion to try his recommendations, which resulted in an exquisite selection of starters of Dalmatian seafood classics. Black risotto, fish pate, smoked mussels, and the clear winner…
… tuna carpaccio with white truffle shavings on top.
From seafood to fuzi pasta with truffles, and beefsteak for the main course, medium rare in a Turopolje truffle sauce…
… with a little white truffle magic on top.
There was no room for dessert, but room would have to be found, with a mix of Dalmatian and continental treats to round off what had been a truly excellent day. Traditional Skradin cake from Bruno’s Sibenik roots, a supremely light rozada, and vanilla ice cream with pumpkin oil. The latter might sound an unlikely combination, but I have become mildly addicted since discovering it once I moved from Hvar to Varazdin.
We were not quite finished with the food yet. One of the challenges (and opportunities) that Tourist Board director Ivana Allilovic has to build on this excellent start is to get enough related products and content to add to the main experience. But things are moving already in that direction, as we were introduced to a lovely lady over lunch who runs a bakery in the town, and who gave us one of her truffle-inspired delicacies to warm up and try when we got home – strukli with truffles. It was outstanding.
A highly educational day, and one with much food… and much food for thought. A simple concept, using the natural treasures of the local region to build up a tourism story based on a fantastic authentic experience in spectacular nature. I wish Ivana luck with her plans, and this is a story we will be following closely.
And for those of you dining in Istria, I would be interested to know if the restaurants up there have heard of Turopolje Zagreb truffles.
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