The path to becoming the king of truffles

On November 02nd 1999 Giancarlo Zigante together with his dog Diana found a tuber weighing 1.310 grams in the Motovun forest near Livade

Since that moment not one night went by that Giancarlo, before falling asleep, did not think about the event which turned his life upside down. To be honest, Giancarlo never sold that record white truffle, so later he could not boast about having earned millions from it. Moreover, he served that truffle cut in slices at a dinner for hundred invited guests during which he boasted in public with the size of his record tuber which Guinness perpetuated in its book of various accomplishments. The permanent remembrance of that capital catch is evoked by a bronze mould of the record truffle at the entrance in Giancarlo’s restaurant Zigante in Livade. The legendary Monty Pyhon star Micheal Palin, while shooting his travelogue series “New Europe”, named the truffle replica an “inflated brain”.

The art of making something out of nothing

Unlike many others, who, unfortunately, never succeeded to make anything out of something, I always knew how to make something out of – nothing! And when it comes to that truffle, with which today everybody is identifying me, it is presented as if it fell from the sky into my arms. Nobody takes the time to reconsider that at least some kind of idea was required for everything following the discovery of that truffle, says Giancarlo Zigante, the most famous Istrian truffle hunter.

And Giancarlo surely did not lack ideas, there were so many of them that very soon his name became a synonym for the Istrian truffle! Therefore it is no surprise that he is dreaming every night about finding the giant truffle. Therefore it comes as no surprise that, in that context, Giancarlo does not forget his dog Diana, a German pointer, whom he awarded for the perfect sense of smell with the entire bread he took with him to the Motovun forest. But, he also does not forget the English longhaired pointer Buff, the German pointers Tarzan, Jana, Zara, Žaki… Even today Giancarlo can name every dog with whom he went truffle hunting during the past forty two years!

Believing in yourself

Of course, even if I wanted to, I could not forget the discovery of the record truffle because after that many things have changed. However, from a realistic point of view, going to the forest that day did not differ from the numerous visits to the forest before as well as after that. We stumbled upon the truffle accidentally – at a spot we went by a hundred times before! Also, it happened that I went truffle hunting in the forest for three days in a row and found in total not more than 150 grams. On the fourth day I didn’t feel like going at all, but I went anyway, I paused, but nothing, and nothing and nothing. At seven o’clock one morning the dogs jumped out of the car and found a truffle weighting 250 grams right away. I did not stop till late in the afternoon. I finished that day with four kilograms of truffles! I also remember one day in 1982, starting at one o’clock after midnight  till the afternoon, I found more than six kilograms of truffles, recounts Giancarlo Zigante, the biggest truffle exporter to the USA. The huge truffle was the trigger for all those dreams I dreamt for such a long time to come true. And there were many dreams and all boiled down to the production of something that would conquer the world. Something that he created with his own hands!

When he had his toolmaking workshop in Kostanjica, on a hill between Motovun and Grožnjan, in the house which today is his residence with a vinery in the cellar, Giancarlo manufactured molds for the production of drugs for pharmaceutical plants such as Pliva, Krka, Leka… At that time he wanted to produce his own machine, even if it was nothing but an iron wheelbarrow, but he never went further than a funnel, a joint pistol and the like, and all in small quantities. He visited fairs, socialized with innovators and always bore in mind that those who produced cars also had to start from something! He never gave up, knowing that he is an expert in his work. But, as the war began, the orders ceased, the borders were closed. Some would say – every cloud has a silver lining. Because, Giancarlo then committed himself fully to the truffle industry.

Truffles „in the blood“

I was engaged in truffles earlier, but somehow I wanted to do everything at the same time – truffle hunting, toolmaking and the factory. Truffles were always in my blood. As time went by, all these activities were reduced and the only thing that was left were truffles. For someone who did not leave the forest during the truffle hunting season for the past twenty years, that was the most logical decision, says Giancarlo Zigante. And then, several years later, a giant truffle emerged before him. What followed were decisions enthroning him at the pedestal of the uncrowned king of truffles.

Reaching for the stars

He opened his first truffle shop in Livade and soon after that he opened a restaurant as well, of course in Livade, and this restaurant, headed by the chef-sommelier duo Damir Modrušan – Emil Perdec, took over the top position in the Istrian gastro scene.

With the trade I wanted to make fresh truffles finally available for everyone. And with truffles I also offered Istrian oils and wines. At the beginning some of the Istrian winemakers did not know what to think about all that. And when I realized that those who wanted to eat truffles do not have the possibility to do so, I decided to open a restaurant in which the guests could see the truffle served by waiters on the table. Then I realized that the restaurant was needed outside the truffle season as well and that a good truffle should be accompanied by good wine -  and so the best Istrian wines offer was always present in my restaurant. Our chef Damir Modrušan and his top staff are already at the level we want to achieve – the Michelin Star!  But, we need to improve certain things in order to reach that level… This is my dream as well as my children’s dream and we shall do everything that is needed and make every effort in order to achieve that status, says Giancarlo Zigante.

Four year ago he initiated Zigante Truffle Days, a gastronomic event lasting seven weekends from the end of September till the beginning of November.

Being different

Unlike many others who are constantly reducing the duration of festivals, I decided to do something completely different. My festivity celebrating truffles is lasting longer and longer. I did not invest so much in vain in the infrastructure in Livade so it now would be left unused and in order to organize some kind of caravan fairs, every time in another town. No, I said that Livade shall be the centre of truffles – and that’s the way it is, says Giancarlo Zigante.

The saying that truffles were sticking to his hands by themselves became a fact. The annual production required new conditions, and thus a new factory was opened in Plovanija, processing tons of truffles annually. But, instead of stopping and starting to enjoy the fruits of his success, he initiated two more successful stories simultaneously – olive oil and wine.

Never stop dreaming

Simultaneously with the truffles story, my fascination with olive oil and wine grew as well, especially after I opened the restaurant in Livade. I realized that something was missing and so I started, first with oils and now with wines as well. Thus I shall soon make my biggest wish come true – to have an own wine! Please understand that it was not easy to achieve all this; it was required to find and purchase the land since I did not own any. I started to purchase land some twelve, thirteen years ago, and I purchased land for planting olives, and I started to plant my first grapevine only a few years ago. The cellar will be located in Kostanjica, where I purchased a beautiful piece of land for a lot of money. I don’t regret one Kuna spent because it is a pleasure knowing that something belongs to you. Last year I had the first Malvazija and Teran harvest and I am more than satisfied! The only thing I have to do is to produce premium quality wine. Recently I visited New York and one of our Istrians, Milan Licul, who has five restaurants there, wanted to purchase everything right away and to offer the wine in his restaurants! Currently I have in total approximately fifteen thousand grapevines and thousand and six hundred olive trees, says Giancarlo Zigante.

His former dreams about an own machine with which he would conquer the world were replaced with fantasies about the best olive oil in the world originating from his olive orchards. His wishes very soon became true. Flos Olei designated his extra virgin olive oil produced from the Istrian olive variety Bjelica as the best biologically produced olive oil.

These are extraordinary results in olive growing, I want to repeat them with wines as well, says Giancarlo Zigante announcing his next goal.

And he promises – he shall not produce wine with truffles! Even though a few years ago it happened that he had in the same cellar a barrel of white wine which he produced from purchased grapes for his own pleasure and a chamber with truffles. The wine obtained in full the truffle fragrance! Giancarlo is taking his new task very seriously. Instead of being in his restaurant, he is spending more and more time in his vineyard, with muddy shoes and dirty hands. He doesn’t want to leave anything to chance, he is endeavouring to supervise everything and to influence the other workers with his own example.

I am still not thinking about retirement, I feel as if I was twenty years old! I am only impatient, I am annoyed when I have to deal with other things while the vineyard is awaiting. The goal is to build a beautiful cellar with quality wines which I will be able to market in top restaurants and top shops. I am not interested in huge quantities, the only thing I am interested in is premium quality, concludes Giancarlo Zigante.