Truffles and Wine and Olive Oil – oh my! Sorry – channeling my inner Dorothy there! But truffles, wine and olive oil are the topic of today’s travel adventure in my Dream Now, Travel Later segment.
Now as you are probably well aware of by now, I am a huge culinary freak and I even attended culinary school! Needless to say, I was extremely excited to welcome Alex Opacic from Taste Istria as our guest speaker to share his passion for this perfect gourmet trifecta with us! Not only that but we also got to explore three different areas of the world including Croatia and Slovenia as well as some of Northern Italy because Istria is a triangular peninsula that actually lies within these three countries!
So, grab a glass of vino and sit back and relax and enjoy this journey into the world of truffles, wine and olive oil – and more!
Company Background: Taste Istria has been dedicated to wine and culinary tourism since 2007 offering what they refer to as the perfect trifecta of truffles, wine and olive oil. Alex noted that there are other products as well in their tourism offerings, but these are the three he is focusing on during this chat. Now Istria – which as I said in the into is a triangular peninsula that is part of Croatia, Slovenia and Italy – is just a two-hour drive eastward from Venice and before you get to the Croatian part you have to pass through Slovenia which is a relatively short coast. Clear as mud? Basically, Alex surmised that when he leaves home to go shopping for some delicacies – he travels through two countries – even though the trip there is only 25 miles!
And while visiting Istria it as a fabulous trip in itself it’s also a great extension to an Italian holiday thanks to their proximity. From Rome or Tuscany, it only takes three to four hours by high-speed train to get to Venice and then another hour to get to Trieste which is the furthest city you can get two in Italy via train. From there you are only about 45 minutes by car to get to anywhere in Western Slovenia or to the part of Istria that resides in Croatia!
And for our guests coming from the bigger cities in Italy that were so crowded – once they cross the border, they’ll be pleasantly surprised! This off the beaten path destination with no crowds and plenty of elbow room is great for social distancing! Between its small population and a six-lane highway network created for tourist arrivals by car – even if by chance everyone was out on the highway at one time – it still wouldn’t be that crowded. And you’ll find the attractions, restaurants and wineries will always have reservations available. And my favorite part – Alex assured us you won’t arrive at a winery and find it’s overcrowded – you pretty much have the winery to yourself! Now that’s a no-brainer!
About Those Truffles… Truffles are generally known as coming from Piedmont, Italy. They are also occasionally found in Tuscany. Alex also noted that in Serbia they just found some, so it is on its way to becoming a great truffle destination, but it is still in the very early stages.
Piedmont is actually famous for the white truffle, but Istria has them as well. There’s a story here! Istria did not actually become known for white truffles until about two decades ago because prior to that all of the truffles in Istria were smuggled and sold as Italian ones! According to Alex about two decades ago is when they started operating their own truffle businesses with some government subsidies. But what really gained them popularity was when – in 1999 – one of their employees found the largest white truffle in the world! Yup – the people from the Guinness Book of World Records came and measured and it certainly was – and still is – the largest truffle ever found. There were offers from all over the world to purchase it, but they decided to pool all of their money together and buy the truffle themselves – then proceeded to make an omelet with 1999 eggs – with all the profits going to local children’s charities and children’s hospitals. Alex also let us know that there is a Michelin-starred restaurant featured in his tours where the cooking classes take place where you can actually view this strange brain looking cast of that very truffle!
Now in addition to the white there are also black truffles. They are the same ones that are also found in Provence, France which are called black diamond or the black Périgord. In addition to that black diamond truffle, they also have two other black truffles – a winter black truffle and a summer black truffle – meaning you can have truffles no matter what time of you visit. What is interesting here is there are actually laws for black truffles that are pretty stringent. You must serve them fresh. You cannot freeze them and then serve them unless you get a special permit! However, this does not apply to the white ones which only grow four months out of the year – between mid-August and late December depending on the weather.
And The Olive Oil…Alex proudly informed us that each year 10,000 samples of high-end olive oil are gathered from all over the world and judged by a panel of Italian jurors. And this year – for the fourth consecutive year – Istria topped everyone – even Tuscany – as the top region for olive oil. In addition, 90 out of the top 500 olive oils in the Flos Olei Guide were from Istria – with the majority from the Croatian part, some of them come from the Slovenian part and the others were from the eastern part of Italy. Needless to say, Alex is pretty proud of all this!
He also educated us on a part of the olive oil culture that many people don’t understand – that olive oil – just like wine – can be mono varietal or single varietal like a Sauvignon Blanc or a Cabernet Franc wine for instance. And different types of olives can give you different types of products – some are sweet, some are pungent, some are tastier in a different way. Generally, one producer can make twelve different types of olive oils from the different olives they grow on different trees.
And Now The Wine! So even though it sounds like an oxymoron the wine industry in Istria is referred to as internal exports. There exists here a perfect blend between many different types of wine and the winemakers are privileged in that they don’t have to compete in the world market – thanks to tourism and not having to worry about wine exporting and all those hassles. Instead, they sell their wine local. In fact, they sell 90% of their wine locally to wine bars, wine shops and restaurants. This gives them more time to dedicate themselves to personally welcoming their guests. Years ago, the decision was made that they wouldn’t be able to compete with the low prices other winemakers can offer. So, they went with the concept of offering a high-end product. And although it took some time, they now are considered and recognized as a place where you will pay slightly more for your wine – and this goes olive oil as well – but you will get a high-end product that is fabulous – and worth it!
Other Products: As I stated earlier – the area is home to other products. And even though this presentation isn’t focusing on them – Alex still shared what some of them are. For instance – across border – but still in in Istria – there are 1200 salt pans where salt flour is still collected by hand to this day. And quality wise it can be compared to the salts that come from France. Also, across the border there is wild asparagus to be found.
In Italy, the city of Trieste is the unofficial capital of coffee in the country. Not just because illy Coffee is based there but basically every single Italian varietal coffee is from there except for Lavazza. Here they offer coffee tours that include coffee tastings or experiences where you can learn how to make your own cappuccino and more.
There’s seafood too! And Alex also informed us that his region in Istria is famous for arguably some of the best Mediterranean Sea bass as well and sole, gold bass and scampi.
Going further south in Croatia to Dubrovnik – which is super famous thanks to the fact Game of Thrones was filmed there – they’re equally famous for their lobsters and oysters too!
And surprise – Croatia is one of the largest exporters of tuna fish! This is because of the fact that the Adriatic Sea is a bay of the Mediterranean Sea and the water is relatively shallow meaning the tuna is already salty or – it’s basically already seasoned!
Sightseeing and Activities and Tours:
Tour Overview / Culture: The Taste Istria tours have been designed so that you aren’t spending too much time traveling in the vehicle. As Alex said – they want you to be out and about enjoying all there is to see and do. So, while they concentrate on the main aspect of the tour – truffles or wines or olive oils – they also include cultural aspects. For instance, the tour may include a visit to the regional capital city of Istria – Pula – where you will see one of the seven best preserved Roman coliseums in the world. Or possibly you might take in one of the ten designated UNESCO World sites thorough the country. No matter what the tour – culture is always a part of it.
Truffle Extravaganza: One of the most important truffle festivals in Piedmont starts in mid-September and last until mid-November and it’s really an incredible experience. The tours they operate in September and October are held on Truffle Extravaganza days – which are on the weekends. On these tours you will have your own private truffle guide, participate in truffle hunting then afterwards you will either attend a cooking class or enjoy a multi course lunch or dinner with a wine pairing and /or olive oil pairings as well. The best part is that since a lot of people attend the festivals the price of a truffle-based meal is really inexpensive – or as Alex likened it to – “like the cost of having a burger at some joint in New York!” This is also because you’re really at the very source of the truffles – so there are no intermediaries or expensive transportation costs involved.
Olive Oil Experiences: Alex related to us that the largest meal they ever hosted was a twelve-course meal paired with twelve different olive oils and twelve different wines! And – get this – it lasted somewhere from seven to eight hours!
With every Taste Istria tour, you will visit some olive oil farms and they tend to bring guests to those that have exports to the US. The reason for this – as Alex explained – is because generally the majority of all oils in the world are forged. Not that they are lying to you, but they are able to sell different types of oil and market them as extra virgin olive oil because the regulations are relaxed. There is a huge difference between regular olive oil and high-quality olive oil and though both of them are marketed as extra-virgin olive oil only the high-quality ones give you all the benefits that’s is known and used for. Thus, they will always take you to the olive oil farms where you will learn how to properly taste olive oil and once you learn that it’s a game changer.
Updated COVID-19 Information: As of this writing the CDC recommends travelers avoid all nonessential international travel to Croatia, Slovenia and Italy.
For the CDC’s most up to date information on COVID-19 click here. And for the most up to date entry requirements for each location these tours are offer in – please check with each country’s official website.
So, wow! What an opportunity we have here to combine a lot of these areas with additional countries on a 12-to-14-day trip. We can curate you an itinerary so that you can experience not only this gourmet trifecta – but also the culture, the gastronomy and the wellness opportunities that abound in these areas for a great recharging of your batteries!
For more details on things to see and do, where to stay in Istria, it’s price points and more – contact your Travel Guru! Oh, and if you need a payment plan to fund your travel adventure – we got those too!