by Emma Jones
As truffle season arrives, a new film has documented a group of men who are some of the world’s oldest truffle hunters – and a European way of life that’s disappearing fast.
The Truffle Hunters, by directors Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw, has been shown at film festivals this autumn across the continent, from San Sebastian to Zurich.
It follows a group of men in their 70s and 80s who have been hunting truffles with their dogs all their lives, against the fairy tale backdrop of rural Piedmont in Italy.
They seek the rare white ‘Alba’ truffle – kilo for kilo, the most expensive ingredients in the world – which still cannot be cultivated, and which mainly grows in this Italian region. They hunt at night with their dogs, using all the knowledge that’s been handed down to them through previous generations. They are the last of their kind.
The filmmakers stumbled upon the region, and the sport, when they were holidaying with their families. The documentary took three years to make, because, as Michael Dweck recounts, “tourists can find pseudo-truffle hunters who bury truffles in the ground for the tourists to find, but it took us a year to find the real truffle hunters, the people who didn’t want to be known.
“They don’t tell their wives, their children, they never admit they found a truffle, they just go wandering out for ten hours a night. They’re in their late 80s, they’re with their dog, in the dark and cold, looking for these little morsels of goodness. They do it for love of the sport and for their dogs too – it’s like a game between them.
“It’s an entire world built on secrecy,” he adds. “Where they hunt, how they train their dogs, and mostly, if they ever find any truffles. The first couple of hunters we met, Aldo and Renato, were 86 and 90, and very close friends. They’ve had breakfast and lunch together almost every day for 80 years, and they never once shared their secret truffle spots.”
The reason for this, Gregory Kershaw explains, is “if there's a tree that produces a truffle one year in a certain spot, it’s likely that tree will produce another truffle that size the next year. So, they have these elaborate maps and systems that allow them to track year by year where a truffle will grow and when it will bloom.”
Within the film, the forests of Piedmont have a magical, frozen-in-time quality which the directors wanted to convey.
“The age of this generation gave an urgency for us to tell this film right now,” Kershaw says, “But it’s also the way they relate to the world, it’s this sense of having a deep connection with their past, to their community and to nature. Tech hasn’t overtaken their daily lives. When they go out into the woods, it’s just them and their dogs.
“And they’re on the hunt, they’re chasing their passion. One of our guys in the film, Carlo, who’s 88, is still out there every day, he loves it and it gives him joy to be in nature. He says he’ll get sick otherwise. All these little things they’ve got are slowly being stripped from lives of so many people from around this world.
“There are other generations coming up that are truffle hunting, but they’re not going to be carrying on it the same way as this generation did, and that’s why we wanted to capture it, it does feel both beautiful and fleeting.”
Not only that, but Kershaw adds there could be more than a cultural impact coming for the region in the next few years.
“The forests that produce truffles are under a lot of pressure from climate change, deforestation, agricultural pollution. It all has a big impact on the natural ecosystem.”
Not that the filmmakers believe the truffle industry would ever stop – there’s too much demand.
While these elderly hunters do it for the joy rather than the money, there’s also a thriving secret market for rare white truffles, which, depending upon their scarcity in season, can fetch up to €5,000 per kilo.
“There are so many secrets to this world,” recalls Michael Dweck. “We actually heard there was a secret truffle market at 3 am on a certain day in a certain town – we can’t name it – and we went along. We saw around sixty truffle dealers, old men in the shadow of the church, and a car pulls up, the hatchback opens, and suddenly the smell of truffles floods the street.
“The thing that allows this market to cultivate is that the white truffle can’t be farmed, it can only be found in nature, and with very specific climate and weather conditions. Very few people can pay enough money to eat a white truffle, so it’s a very small market and is constantly fluctuating. “
“It’s good to know there’s a place where science doesn’t have everything figured out,” adds Kershaw.
“I think the beauty of this is it shows there are still some things that are unknown in daily life, and people are just chasing this magic. It’s removed from the certainty logic and science have given us.
“A lot of hunters would love to crack the code and cultivate a white truffle, and lot of people have tried. I guess if that happened, a lot more people would get to eat truffles and this world would completely disappear. But no one has succeeded yet.”
‘The Truffle Hunters’ is due for release in cinemas in 2021.