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As truffle season arrives, a new film has documented a group of men who are among the oldest truffle hunters in the world – and a European way of life that is quickly disappearing.
The Truffle Hunters, from directors Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw, screened at film festivals this fall across the continent, from San Sebastian to Zurich.
It follows a group of men in their 70s and 80s who have hunted truffles with their dogs all their lives, set against the backdrop of a fairy tale from rural Piedmont in Italy.
They are looking for the rare “Alba” white truffle – kilogram for kilogram, the most expensive ingredients in the world – which still cannot be cultivated, and which grows mainly in this Italian region. They hunt at night with their dogs, using all the knowledge passed down to them from previous generations. They are the last of their kind.
The filmmakers came across the region and the sport while on vacation 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 tourists to find, but it took us a year to find the real truffle hunters, people. who did not want to be known.
“They don’t tell their wives, their children, they never admit to having found a truffle, they just go out ten hours a night. They’re in the late 80’s, they’re with their dog, in the dark and cold, looking for those little bits of goodness. They do it for the love of the sport and for their dogs too – it’s like a game between them.
“It’s a whole world built on secrecy,” he adds. “Where they hunt, how they train their dogs and especially if they find truffles. The first hunters we met, Aldo and Renato, were 86 and 90 years old and very close friends. They’ve had lunch and lunch together almost every day for 80 years, and they’ve never once shared their secret truffle spots.
The reason is, explains Gregory Kershaw, “if there is a tree that produces a truffle one year in a certain location, it is likely that that tree will produce another truffle of that size next year. So they have these elaborate maps and systems that allow them to track year after year where a truffle grows and when it blooms.
In the film, the forests of Piedmont have a magical and time-frozen quality that the directors wanted to convey.
“The age of this generation has made us urgent to tell this movie now,” Kershaw says, “But it’s also how they relate to the world, it’s that feeling of having a deep connection with their past, their community and nature. Technology has not overtaken their daily lives. When they go out into the woods, it’s just them and their dogs.
“And they are hunting, they are pursuing their passion. One of our guys in the movie, Carlo, who is 88, is still there everyday, he loves it and it gives him joy to be in nature. He says he will get sick otherwise. All of these little things that they have are slowly being stripped from the lives of so many people all over the world.
“There are other generations to come who hunt the truffle, but they are not going to lead it the same way this generation did, and that’s why we wanted to capture it, it is both beautiful. and ephemeral.
Not only that, but Kershaw adds that there could be more than a cultural impact to come for the region in the next few years.
“The forests that produce truffles are under great pressure from climate change, deforestation and agricultural pollution. All of this has a significant impact on the natural ecosystem. “
Not that the filmmakers think the truffle industry will ever end – there is too much demand.
While these aged hunters do it for joy rather than money, there is also a thriving secret market for rare white truffles, which, depending on their seasonal scarcity, can run up to € 5,000 per kilo.
“There are so many secrets in this world,” recalls Michael Dweck. “We actually heard that 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 there. We saw about sixty truffle trees, old men in the shade of the church, and a car stops, the tailgate opens, and suddenly a smell of truffles floods the street.
“What allows this market to grow is that the white truffle cannot be cultivated, it can only be found in nature, and with very specific climatic and meteorological conditions. Very few people can afford enough money to eat a white truffle, so it’s a very small market and it fluctuates constantly. “
“It’s good to know that there is one place where science hasn’t figured it all out,” Kershaw adds.
“I think the beauty of it is that it shows that there are still things that are unknown in everyday life, and that people are just chasing that magic away. It is far from the certainty that logic and science have given us.
“A lot of hunters would love to crack the code and grow a white truffle, and a lot of people have tried. I guess if that happened, a lot more people would eat truffles and this world would disappear completely. But no one has succeeded yet. “
“ The Truffle Hunters ” is set to hit theaters in 2021.