By Rollo Ross
The white Alba truffle, a coveted ingredient fetching up to $4,000 a pound in the gourmet market, is a treasure found only by a dying breed of hunters and their dogs in the forests of Piedmont, Italy.
Finding the fungus, which loses its prized aroma within a week, is the livelihood of a small group of 80- to 90-year-olds captured in a documentary “The Truffle Hunters,” bound for cinemas on Friday.
“It’s kind of a really unique fairytale-type community that doesn’t seem part of this modern world in many ways,” said Michael Dweck, co-director of the film.
In shots that resemble Italian master paintings, the truffle hunters roam the forests with their dogs, which are trained for four years to dig in search of culinary gold among the roots of tall oak trees.
Truffles, which look like small rocks, are tested and traded among buyers and sellers in an industry which has an annual value forecast to grow to nearly $6 billion globally over the next two decades. Farmers have tried to cultivate them, with limited success.
The film grew out of separate visits to Piedmont by Dweck and co-director Gregory Kershaw, who fell in love with its beauty.
When they learned of the historic industry, they entrenched themselves among the locals before filming for three years.
“What was so remarkable to us was just how rich their lives felt, how much joy they had and it seemed like they’d held onto this wisdom” of having a relationship with nature, Kershaw said.
While the locals speak Italian they prefer the Piedmontese dialect, which some argue is a separate language.
It’s not just words, it holds the culture, it holds the history of the region,” said Kershaw. “There’s kind of a combativeness in the language built into it and so when they started speaking in that language, a different part of them emerged.”
The filmmakers often set up a camera with the subjects in shot and left it on for hours, allowing the story to unfold.
“Every one of them felt very much like a Renaissance painting,” said Dweck. “This place enchanted us and we wanted to spend as much time as we could and then once we realized there was such a mystery and charm to this world, we decided to just film it.”