After three weeks in Zagreb, I spent all of November residing in a loft in Motovun, with a bedroom view of endless fogs rolling in through golden-leaf oak-filled valleys.
Today, writing from Mexico, some think I’m living the dream, but all I’ve thought about lately is last autumn when I lived the harvest season in Istria.
After three weeks in Zagreb last October, I spent all of November residing in a loft on top of Motovun, with a bedroom view of endless fogs rolling in through golden-leaf oak-filled valleys, which make Istria one of the world’s greatest truffle havens.
I haven’t experienced Istria in the summer, but I imagine it packed full of tourists fumbling with maps and smartphones, trudging shoulder-to-shoulder through narrow cobblestone streets. With the Istrian sun’s warmth and the beauty that fills the land, its summertime popularity is understandable. I’d consider myself lucky to enjoy that life sometimes too.
But there’s magic to be found in the off-season. With it so much quieter, those stony ruins speak their tumultuous history to you as you amble through the twisting cobbled streets. Cooler temperatures mean long days of exploring are easier on the body, and your food cravings change, too, which is a good thing in the Istrian harvest of autumn.
Most of my days were 15 to 20 degrees last November, until the very end of the month when the mountains received their first dusting of snow, and nights began to chill the bones as December loomed.
Still, not a day went by when the Croatian national dish of soup didn’t speak to me on a comfort-food level. I found a love for Istarska maneštra that will probably haunt me till my dying days. The Istrian minestrone is a bean-filled soup that varies from place to place, but they’re all a long-simmered delight that cries out for crusty bread and some wine.
Istria’s heritage soup is only part of the story. What’s gold in the Istrian autumn is its abundance of white truffles. What might set you back 50 euros for the white truffle alone in London might be only a 20 euro meal in the heart of Istria.
I fell in love with Motovun’s Konoba Mondo’s polenta with parmesan frico and white truffle shavings. I will return to Istria just for that meal and a glass of Malvazija one day. I’m not a big black truffle fan, but white truffles stole my heart, and if you’re any kind of foodie, it must be a bucket-list thing for you: White truffle season in Istria.
With a shelf life of maybe a week, white truffles can’t be frozen (unlike their black counterparts), and processing them turns a delicate umami experience into something that, for me, isn’t remotely as magical.
We enjoyed all this before rounding up the truffle hounds to go hunting in the patch of forests below. There, I did something few people will ever do – I held a white truffle freshly dug from the earth.
I loved my day at Karlic, and if you’re a truffle hound too, you can’t go wrong seeking the whole truffle experience. They’ll teach you everything you need to know about that elusive acquired taste that’s so hard to find fresh.
After all, Istria is on some lists now as both among the world’s top 10 wine regions and top-5 truffle regions, and autumn is when all that flavourful magic happens.
In those quiet, off-season days, gone are busy crowds at wineries, making it the perfect time to visit world-class vintners like Benvenuti and learn about another Istrian delight now spreading out around the world: Orange wine.
Made from macerating green grape skins as the wine ferments, it’s simply a deeper white wine that takes on the complexities and challenges of sophisticated red wines. It’s another level of flavor unlocked, and as the saying goes, what grows together goes together, and you can’t go wrong with an Istrian orange wine paired with a white truffle meal. This is also the region that gives the world Malvazija, an excellent varietal of white wine only now getting its due recognition in the global arena.
While summer in Istria is marked by beautiful in-season tomatoes and other light, lovely foods, autumn brings with it comfort foods like hearty handmade pasta you’d associate with Italy and braised stews. People forget that Istria shares much heritage with Italy, having been a stronghold of the Venetians for centuries, and pasta is an autumnal delight in much of Istria too.
I fell in love with handmade gnocchi topped with a braised stew of Istria’s heritage cattle, the Boskarin, a flavourful, rich beef that is well-served with hours of stovetop stewing. I enjoyed my gnocchi in the beautiful coastal town of Rovinj so much that I went back for the same meal two nights in a row.
Yes, Istria is a stunning beauty in the summer. However, when October and November roll around, that beauty is still there, just in different shades and with moody weather that shows you its beauty is anything but seasonal. Autumn fogs give way to vibrant sunsets. End-of-season grape vines dotting the landscape become brilliant red, complementing fog-soaked grassy hills and endless stands of golden autumnal oaks.
If you’re considering an Istrian experience, I say pack your fat pants, rent a car, find some budget-friendly off-season stays on hill-towns, and eat your way through the glory of the harvest season in one of the world’s best-kept foodie secrets.