Finding truffles: Documentary sniffs out a dying Italian art

FILE PHOTO: A slice of white truffle is seen in this illustration photograph taken in Rome
FILE PHOTO: A slice of white truffle is seen in this illustration photograph taken in Rome November 19, 2013. Located in the heart of the Langhe - the hilly southern area of Italy's northwestern Piedmont region - Alba is the country's capital of white truffles, a variety of the prized fungus which grows underground. Truffles are found two to eight inches (5-20cm) below the ground near the roots of trees. They give off an odour which lasts for a limited period of time and can be detected with the assistance of well-trained dogs and experienced hunters. Output of white truffles, which are not cultivated and only grow naturally in forests, has fallen in Italy over the past few years, largely because climate change has brought a damaging mix of drought and torrential rains REUTERS/Stefano Rellandini/File Photo

March 12, 2021

By Rollo Ross

(Reuters) – 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.”

(Reporting by Rollo Ross; Writing by Richard Chang; Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)