Very young, experienced and ambitious – anyone could envy his enthusiasm. We had a chat with Ivan Karlić, a truffle hunter from Paladini – a small Istrian hilltop village overlooking Butoniga lake and other charming hills of Terra Magica.
Ivan’s parents started the Karlić truffles business before his birth, and they seem to have passed the ambition to build and develop the business onto future generations -he is nothing less willed or determined to work and create new products with passion.
Although he’s slowly stepping in international business waters and has quite a business going on at a very young age, he is still a simple, grounded, modest guy who says hunting truffles isn’t even a real job, but rather a hobby.
Tell us the story of Karlić truffles.
During the 1950’s my grandfather met an Italian who used to come to these areas to hunt truffles. After years of friendship he gave my nonno a truffle dog as a gift. The area of lake Butoniga once was the best truffle forest in Istria, and that’s exactly where he found his first truffle. That’s how it all started. At first, he was only hunting, later he started buying truffles from other hunters and selling them to Italians. During those times, the value of truffles wasn’t much so they all functioned through trading – truffles for ham or something else.
My parents started the business in 1992, and at the beginning they were dealing exclusively with fresh truffles and asparagus. Throughout the years our products have developed from raw truffles to truffle oil, tartufata, and today we count more than 30 different items we can offer.
Recently I came up with an idea and soon we created the first chocolate with truffles in the world, which is unique. Really, no one in the world produces chocolate cream with truffles. Nonetheless, every year we invest in new ideas and products, it is important to always improve your products and keep moving forward.
How did you turn truffle hunting into an attraction for tourists?
It goes 10 years back. Our family friend from Germany who has holiday rentals in Lovran used to buy artisan food from us. One day he asked my mom to take him into the forest for the hunting experience, and said he was going to pay her. For him, that experience was fascinating because he saw the whole process of hunting. When they returned from the forest, he asked her to make a dish with truffles, like a pasta or an omelette. Next day, he said he was going to send tourist from his vacation rentals to have that same hunting and gastro experience. Soon, word got out we were doing a good job, and here we are today – last year we counted 7,000 visits.
When did you start hunting?
I was born covered in truffles. (laughter)
I went to my first solo hunt for white truffles when I was 14 years old. I wanted to become independent, so I began discovering the smaller part of the forest. After many years of experience today I know it by heart, but when I was a kid, it all seemed big, infinite. I used to get lost, I wasn’t using GPS like today, I was mostly relying on my own spatial orientation, or the orientation of lake guards – and their shouting when I approached the lake too close.
Are there any rules of behavior in the forest?
Even the forest has its rules of behavior. Once the truffle is found, the rule is to cover the hole from which we excavated it. That way, the site is protected, and besides, the ground around the truffle is cleansed and returned to the hole because it is full of mycelium – that way we ensure the restoration of the truffle. Unfortunately, there are people who are destroying holes and sites, that’s inevitable.
Specific locations for your hunting groups?
When we take hunting groups into the forest, we have three locations that are accessible and harmless for everyone. We always point out to every new group that out of 10 attempts to find truffles, 8 of them are successful – when we speak of black truffle. When it comes to white truffle, the chances are 50-50. We always try to convey the real truffle hunting experience, and the reality is – the hunt is not always successful. But persistence always pays in the end.
Best time of the year for truffle hunting?
The best time to hunt truffles is from May to June for black truffles, although they grow throughout the year. The best time for white truffles is from September to January.
What if you dig out the truffle while it’s still small?
It doesn’t mean that the truffle is going to be smaller if we, for instance, hunt it out of season. There’s only going to be less truffles in terms of quantity. When the dog digs out the truffle, that means it reached its process of maturation. No further grow is happening then, no matter its size. The dog can’t find a truffle that’s not mature because there is no releasing scent.
I always keep saying to tourists:
“Truffles are like people – you can grow up to be 1,5 m tall and not grow anymore, and then you have Michael Jordan – and that is one big truffle.”
If it weren’t for truffle hunting, I’d be a…
I have no idea? I said I was going to be a truffle hunter when I was six years old. At that age, all kids say they want to grow up to be astronauts, cops, doctors, singers. I simply said I was going to be a truffle hunter, even though that was not a real job then. It still isn’t, it’s a hobby, a way of life.
You’ve been around the globe and you know the situation on the international market. How’s Croatia doing so far?
France, Italy, Spain – all those countries have truffles, but not everyone has white truffles. We have them, and yet, our chefs decide to serve black truffles, because they’re cheaper. And it’s a shame, we export 99% of white truffle to other European countries, America and Asia. We don’t have enough clientele willing to pay for white truffles during their stay in Croatia. That’s tragic.
A guest from abroad will pay for a white truffle in France, that same truffle that was imported from Croatia. But here in Croatia, that guest is not going to pay, let’s say 70€ for pasta with truffles, because he is accustomed to the idea of being in a low-price country. People around the globe generally know about us, but only a bit. From my personal experience, they get the picture when I say we’re geographically close to Italy. Too bad, we have good standards in hospitality compared to the world, and excellent food. Take for instance olive oil, we are one of the best regions in the world.
We already have the quality, but we need more work.
Why is Istria ‘Terra Magica’?
We have everything in one place. We have sea, mountains, small taverns, beautiful restaurants, numerous natural attractions. You can go on a road trip with your friends and literally everyone will find something for themselves. Someone likes to hike, I like to drink and eat. I’m a big foodie. On the other hand, we are close to Austria, Germany, Italy, all within our reach. We simply have it all.
You love traveling, and when you’re not in Istria, you enjoy foreign cultures and countries. What’s the bigger challenge – the hunt for life or the hunt for truffles?
If you want to hunt life you have to hunt truffles, so I’d say – it’s a matter of balance.