Truffles are a delicacy, one we are happy to indulge in when they’re being offered at a nice restaurant, and they’re only offered at a nice restaurant. At home they’re wildly out of our price range, or at least any responsible grocery budget, and we made do with truffle oil, for special occasions.
White truffles, trifola d’Alba Madonna (“Truffle of the White Madonna” in Italian) is found mainly in the Langhe and Montferrat areas of the Piedmont region in northern Italy, and most famously, in the countryside around the cities of Alba and Asti. They can go for $4000USD per pound in a good season; in one where truffles are more scarce, like they were a couple of years ago, a set weighing just under 2lbs went for $85,000. Why so expensive? Well, they’re nearly impossible to cultivate. You basically have to find them growing wild in nature, but they grow underground with no above ground marker, nearly impossible to find. Plus, once they’re out of the ground, they start losing mass, so they need to go from underground to on the table in less than 36 hours. Truffle hunters are a rare, and possibly a dying breed. It’s mostly a group of aging men, their particular skill set nearly as elusive as the truffles themselves. They comb the countryside woods with their trusty dogs, looking to find their pot of gold.
This documentary focuses on the eccentric octogenarians who have made this treasure hunt their trade. Directors Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw saturate us with romantic notions of nature while the old men charm us as they play for the camera. The camera is an impartial audience who listens to stories attentively and doesn’t roll its eyes like grandkids do.
These old men guard the secrets to their success like precious gems. Tradition is of the utmost importance, but modern challenges like climate change and deforestation are whittling away at the time-honoured art and science of truffle hunting. And as the truffles grow more scarce, and therefore more valuable, the competition stiffens. Competitors are even leaving poison out for the dogs.
And let’s face it: the dogs are the real stars here. Aurelio and his pal Birba steal the show; they are each other’s faithful companions, their relationship touching and sweet.
Carlo is a passionate and feisty forager but his wife doesn’t like him hunting at night any more. Titina is always by his side, ever loyal, even in church they both receive a blessing for a bountiful season ahead. Gabby Sergio is lucky enough to have two gifted canine friends, Pepe and Fiona, and crafty enough to go to great lengths to keep adversaries off his scent.
This unique and sometimes curiously comical documentary slyly draws a picture of a wildly diverging socioeconomic class between those who hunt the truffles and those who consume them. But despite the high demand and the vast business machinery driving the market, the real elites are the dwindling number of people who can actually supply those tasty little treasures. Some resources just aren’t renewable.
We saw this at TIFF, but it will also be the closing night film at the Devour! Food Film Fest.