Food Tales

Hunting with Dogs and Finding Gold in Croatia's Dirt

by Jean Tang
Prodan Black truffles are gold in Croatia. Photos by Jean Tang.

In the Istrian corner of Croatia — primo truffle country — and attending a truffle hunt with cute dogs and then eating a truffle feast is an unforgettable foodie experience.

BUZET, Croatia – “Piiiiiicooooo! Meeeeeel!” calls Mirko Prodan, over and over, drawing out the vowels in a rich baritone.

He is summoning a pair of highly trained 15-pound terriers. The size of Upper East Side lapdogs, Pico and Mel are truffle hunters — and the impossibly cute leaders of the Prodan Tartufi truffle hunting experience I’m on in Buzet, Croatia. 

It had all happened in a flash. When the dogs were let loose, they tore down a broad hillside, reached the bottom and began bounding and bouncing happily — like Tigger — around Prodan’s six-acre grove of majestic oak and beech trees. 

Within minutes, Pico had sniffed out his first truffle and started digging eagerly. Mirko gently pushed him aside and used his truffle shovel to dig out the prize: an inch-long black specimen, firm as a rock and definitively puckered. Once Pico sensed he was out of luck for a snack, he signaled to Mel, and the two sped out of the forest, leaving Mirko with eight visitors in the silent woods to pass around the deep-scented truffle — and wonder what the dogs were up to. 

"Off to chase a small animal, probably," said Mirko.

"Or to snack on a secret stash of truffles," said someone else. 

Mirko and his cute truffle hounds.

Earlier that morning, Višnja Prodan, Mirko’s sister, the third-generation owner of the family-owned truffle wholesaler, had commented on the remarkable olfactory talent of dogs. 

"Dogs love truffles more than anything,” she said, adding that pigs love them, too, but have always proven a bit too quick to eat their finds.

And that would be expensive, she added, citing that at their peak, black truffles can cost 600-700 euros per kilo ($22.50/ounce). Of course, this is nothing compared to the rarer and more coveted white truffle, whose peak price last year hit $3,600/pound — and that's with a shelf life of just one week. (Aside from Italy, Croatia is the only country where white truffles are found.)

In contrast, dogs will happily scout for truffles, then relinquish their finds — in exchange for a tiny nibble and a scratch behind the ears.

All at once, Pico and Mel came bounding back. Within moments, Pico began digging at his second truffle — slightly smaller, but no less fragrant. Satisfied with our two-truffle bounty, Mirko led everyone back up the slope toward the Prodan Family Garden to a patio set for a beautiful three-course truffle lunch.

For the uninitiated, truffles spring from the symbiosis of a helpful tree fungus. The truffles help the trees find nutrients, and the trees provide carbohydrates so the truffles can grow. The result is astonishing: A black truffle is firm as a gourd, grooved like coral, jet black on the outside, and veiny inside, the hue of white pepper. The taste? If you were to hold your breath and nibble, you might think you were eating paper. But inhale it, and the musky aroma envelopes your senses, lending a remarkably tasty and addictive quality to any foods they enhance.

Varna cooking truffles eggs on right. Appetizers on left.
Vanda cooking truffles eggs on right. Appetizers on left.
Prodan truffle grove.
Prodan truffle grove.

Višnja welcomed us back, poured some wine, and served a leisurely lunch. The opening course was a smorgasbord: sliced baguette with a variety of truffled spreads, each with a sliver of black truffle at the center, plus truffled salumi, cheeses, and olive oil for dipping. The Prodan bounty was rich — in addition to truffles, we ate eggs (an excellent vehicle for truffles), salad, and wine, with most of the ingredients cultivated on the Prodan grandmother’s farm. 

For us, Višnja's mother, Vanda, cracked open dozens of orange-bright eggs, and then slow-scrambled them inside a truffled bath, while friendly bees swirled lazily in the bright autumn sunshine. After a dessert of ice cream with truffled honey, Visnja and Mirko led us to the family retail store, where dozens of products — truffled spreads, cheeses, honeys, and meats — were for sale. I wanted to buy everything, but with TSA restrictions, glass packaging, and limited cash on hand, I chose a couple of small items to remember the tastiest day of my Croatian trip.

Plan Your Trip

Tours are offered daily throughout the year, by private booking. Start time is usually 9 a.m., with a second start time added when demand is high. To book a tour, fill out the contact form at Prodan Tartufi or send an email to Tour size is limited (e.g. no busloads of people), so they always feel intimate. Prices start at 65 euros and include a three-course meal. The store takes cash only: Come prepared.

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