“Remember, Remember, the fifth of November” Part One

Remember, Remember, the fifth of November
Gunpowder, treason and plot.

I see no reason why gunpowder, treason
Should ever be forgot…

So goes the old nursery rhyme, but this year’s 5th November was far more memorable for us than an attempt to blow up the British Houses of Parliament now marked with a few fireworks, a barbecue and lashings of mulled wine.  It was, more importantly, the date of the annual Mushroom Festival in Brtonigla!

We first visited this event in 2010 having finally been able to link our calendars to a series of food and wine festivals in Istria that we had up until then missed due to conflicting diary dates in the UK.

So having already experienced the fun of the large white marquee pitched in the town square outside the picturesque church, packed with hundreds of types of mushrooms marked ‘jestiva’– edible, ‘nejestiva – inedible’ and ‘otrovna – toxic’, as well as young children dancing, sliding and skidding about on the makeshift floor, calor gas heaters cooking up soups, stews and scrambled eggs with mushrooms and altogether a bit of a bash, we were well up for another visit.

The first time we had taken the British Airways Wine Society scout who was looking for interesting places to visit for their June 2011 trip (see one of our previous blogs) and this time we had invited two of the most well known bloggers from the UK – Food aficionado Niamh Shields and Wine Sleuth Denise Medrano.  These two are neither newcomers nor hangers on nor urban trendies of the moment; they have sleuthed, detected, unravelled and written from wine and food hotspots around the globe.  Niamh has further proved herself by winning the Observer’s Best Blogger award and her recipe book ‘Comfort & Spice’ has put her firmly at the top of the British foodie tree.

The morning had started well with breakfast at the Hotel Amfiteatar Pula, then a walk through Pula’s old Roman town to the open market, strolling round the fish market, tasting wonderful Pag cheeses, buying honey, lentils and beans, then a meeting with James Joyce (surely reverential for him to meet fellow Irish author Niamh!), then a leisurely amble back across the square to the forum and down the crisscross of cobbled streets to the huge Pula arena.

The Mushroom Festival was being held for the first time in Brtonigla’s brand new museum and exhibition building, starting in the morning with the opening of the fair, presentation of mushrooms and reception of the teams.  At 11 am relays of teams would go out to find mushrooms to return at 1 pm to hand their findings in to the jury.  With a lunch break at 1.30 pm for several hours whilst judging took place the main award ceremony would then start at 4 pm, with one of the best awards we’ve ever come across:- a prize for the “Biggest and Nicest mushroom”.  I would love to be a judge in a competition for the biggest and nicest mushroom but how does one decide it? We remembered that last year’s winner was larger than Trevor’s hand, with the smallest mushroom being tinier than a baby’s fingernail.

Rather than involve ourselves in the preamble of the day’s event, we decided to wait until the afternoon to attend the culmination of the exhibition, the judging and the party, and so marked the opportunity to travel to Brtonigla by driving up to see Franco and Vesna Cattunar at their winery on the hill behind the village in Nova Vas.  One of the most interesting reasons for a visit to the Cattunars in recent months has been the taste test of their four different 100% malvazija istarska wines – presented in four different bottles are four different white wines grown on four different soil types thus presenting four different tastes.  This test serves as a reminder of the four distinct soil types of Istria and how they impact on the wine itself, subtly changing its aroma and taste.  It is also interesting how different people’s tastes are and this test splits and divides people around a table.

Franco was busy in the winery when we arrived, far happier up a ladder than sitting at the table talking, although he was soon quick to open new and old vintages with Alessandro, his marketing director, for us to trial and taste with delicious snacks and new green olive oil provided by wife Vesna. One wine followed another, with late harvested malvazija, a preview of Franco’s delicious new Rosé, and some amazing grappa to finish.

Knowing that we would be meeting up with them again for dinner at Morgan restaurant in Brtonigla later that evening, we said our goodbyes and headed off for the mushroom festival, walking up to the village centre from the small car park behind the Pizzeria San Rocco near the church.  One tiny frustration was our inability to find the new building!  It wasn’t yet signposted as it was so new, so we had to phone several local contacts to establish exactly where it was whilst walking up and down the main street looking for the crowds.  There were others in a similar dilemma who had parked up in the centre of the village and were looking up and down the side roads, but eventually we all walked in the same direction to find the building still with ladders propped up outside and men hastily putting together the finishing touches.

On the ground floor of this splendid new building were laid out long trestle tables piled with mushrooms of every kind: large and small, beige and bright, dull and vibrant.  A few posters and pop up banners had been put up in the room showing various farmers displaying baskets of mushrooms, lists of Latin names and the like, And then that seemed to be it.  But where was the dancing?  The mushroom cook-up?  Where were the festivities? The drinks?  The PARTY? There was no sign of life other than a few other tourists admiring the multi-mushroom line up with us.

A noise below drew our attention to a flight of stairs leading down to another floor, so we headed in its direction only to walk in to an extensive bar area crammed with locals.  Through this area outside into a small amphitheatre shaped terrace and there was a second less-covered outdoor kitchen, rows of benches round tables and not an empty space in sight.  Here was the party in full swing! So from the outside one could hear almost nothing, the best kept secret in northern Istria!

We graduated towards the kitchen area where we were soon meeting the major players of the festival: teams of mushroom hunters all eager to show us baskets laden with field mushrooms, cooks frying butter ready for chopped mushrooms, people stirring huge vats of soup with great ladles, men opening bottle after bottle of local wine and grappa, and all keen to share their experiences, their food and drink with us. Knowing that we were in front of a culinary experience of our own that evening at Morgan with the Cattunars, we were as abstemious as possible, well, at least when it came to the food.  But who can resist home-made wine the colour of cherries and grappa the colour of water?!

After 10 minutes we were fully integrated into this local fair and the dancing had begun in earnest; couples waltzing and smooching and singing mingling with tourists, farmers and residents alike.

Late into the afternoon the Mayor of Brtonigla arrived to present prizes and certificates to various teams of mushroom foragers, who whooped with delight as they applauded each other’s endeavours.  The world of mushroom hunting didn’t seem as cutthroat as we may have thought; no espionage here, merely happy and merry Istrians earnestly enjoying the delights of wild boletus on show and on plates.

We sat on the tiered rows of the little amphitheatre watching the throng, waving and laughing with our new-found friends.

Back next year?  Definitely yes.  In fact we’ll put it in the calendar now.

For those who have never visited Brtonigla contact the Tourist Board of Brtonigla by email at info@tzo-brtonigla.hr or phone on +385 (0)52 774307 for more details. There are many places to stay in and around Brtonigla. Again, email the Tourist Board for a list, or contact us direct (info@pactaconnect.co.uk) and we’d be happy to recommend a few places too.

© Pacta Connect UK Ltd, December 2011