It was 2am when I left the house that night in November 1999. I was heading out into the Motovun forest in Istria, in the north-west of Croatia, to hunt for truffles. Serious truffle hunting is done at night – it’s better for the dogs, as the moisture carries the smell of the truffle better, and also it’s harder to be followed.
It was a freezing night – the temperatures at that time of year dip below zero. Being a truffle hunter is not an easy job: it’s usually wet and muddy in the forest. You often get scratched and dirty, and can return empty-handed. Still, I had a gut feeling that the night would be a good one, so with Diana, my trusty German pointer, I set off.
A truffle is an edible fungus that grows underground, often in the roots of oak trees. A good hunter might be able to see subtle signs of a truffle beneath the soil, but it’s down to luck – and, of course, a well-trained dog, who can indicate when you’re at the right spot.
In Istria, it’s possible to find four types of truffle (one white and three black). But it’s Tuber Magnatum Pico, a white truffle with pale yellow skin and a pungent smell, that is the most precious and expensive. It’s difficult to say how many are found in our region in a normal year, because people don’t like to disclose when they do.
I started truffle hunting in the early 80s, when I was still in my 20s. I was the first person in my family to do anything with truffles. It started as a hobby, to supplement my income, and it grew from there. I really connected with it. I was a tool-maker for the medical industry before, but fell in love with the truffle-hunting lifestyle.
My spot was the Motovun forest – I’ll never reveal the exact location. Because of the money that can be made from truffles, rivalries have sprung up, sometimes deadly: people in other countries have been shot, and a few unscrupulous hunters have been known to lay poison in the forests. It can be a cut-throat business.
As soon as we arrived that night, Diana found a few small truffles and I knew my hunch had been right. When truffle hunting, you lose track of time – it behaves differently. So I don’t know how long it was, perhaps a few hours, before she indicated a new patch of earth. I got on my knees and started digging, down to about 20cm. I could see it was a big one, so I was careful not to damage it. It took 15 minutes to dig it out.
I’d found a few big truffles before, weighing in at around 500g, but this was three times as big. As soon as I removed it from the earth, I went home, so as not to damage it.
I weighed the truffle straight away and knew I had something special on my hands. It weighed 1,310g. In the morning I spoke with Guinness World Records, who confirmed that it was the biggest truffle ever recorded. I could have sold it for €1m and made my fortune, but I knew instantly that I didn’t want to do that. It’s great to be rich, but I felt the truffle could have more impact if it was shared. The truffle was found in Istria and should be consumed here, not sold to a rich person abroad.
I invited 200 people from Istria to a feast, on me, and we ate it between us. The night was very special; an amazing atmosphere. Even the president of Croatia was there. Every white truffle tastes amazing – but this one was different.
My friends and family were supportive of my decision. If I had sold it, it would never have had the same impact. I was like a hero in my community. It put Istrian white truffles on the gastronomic map. Three years after finding the truffle, I decided to start my own restaurant.
Now there’s a bronze statue of the truffle at my restaurant in Livade, a village in Istria. It’s a great conversation starter – people think it’s a statue of a brain. They can’t imagine a truffle could be that big. In the years afterwards, I thought of the truffle often. It’s my biggest professional achievement.
I rarely go out truffle hunting any more; I’m 71, and it’s hard, physical work. I do it occasionally for old times’ sake. It’s still in my blood; it’s a passion.
My truffle is no longer the largest ever found: the record was broken in the US in 2014. But that one, weighing 1,786g, was sold to the highest bidder, so for that reason, I believe mine is still the most famous.