Truffle Hunters: White Gold – Fort Worth Weekly
Marcella Hazan was a great expert on Italian cuisine, and I remember reading in her classic Italian cookbook that farmers would look for truffles with the help of their dogs in order to sniff the precious mushrooms. She said that a farmer with a reliable dog would not sell the animal at any cost. What The Truffle Hunters make clear when you see it in one of the Tarrant County theaters where it opens this weekend is that these dogs are more than just clerks to their owners. They are beloved friends, and that makes this film as much about people and their pets as it is about the Tartufi Bianchi, loved by Italian foodies around the world.
Filmmakers Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw do not provide narratives or interviews. You simply follow three different truffle hunters through the humid mountain forests of the northern Italian region of Piedmont. They don’t even give us the names of the men. Sergio Cauda, a relatively young man in the company who has his own drum kit in front of his house, goes out with a whole pack of dogs. His 84-year-old colleague Aurelio Conterno only has one curly dog named Birba. With no family, he refuses to tell anyone about the places he collects truffles, stating that he would not even tell his children if he had any. Even so, he gets upset with Birba and considers marrying a wife just so the dog can have a caretaker when its time comes. The film follows the mushrooms from the moment they were dug up to the auction houses where elegant men who speak many languages negotiate their sale to the restaurants where the tasty mushrooms are sold over eggs, pasta, rice and Meat to be shaved. “If you’re not picky about it, you can eat it with almost anything,” says 88-year-old Carlo Gonella, just before he brings his dog Titina to church to have the priest personally bless her.
Dweck and Kershaw don’t shy away from the unsightly side of this lucrative market, as stories make the rounds of farmers killing each other’s dogs. Indeed, Sergio loses a dog to a strychnine bait, a nasty death that is tactfully kept off-screen. These Tartufari complain about mushroom poachers and jealously protect their territory from one another, and brokers literally stand in back alleys selling the truffles to restaurants. The filmmakers try to point out climate change, but the constraints they have placed on themselves do not allow them to illustrate how this way of life is disappearing. (Compare Jiro Dreams of Sushi, where the main theme was thinking about the seafood he couldn’t find anymore.) As Angelo Gagliardi, a man who wears berets, long gray hair and a beard that makes him look like Leonardo da Vinci To sit down to write an angry manifesto about why he quits the truffle game, the movie lets him get away with it like a crank.
I’ve seen this movie on my laptop, but it definitely needs the big screen. The directors, who are also the cameramen of this project, produce breathtaking shots of the rolling Piedmontese hills. They also attach GoPro cameras to the dogs so we can see the landscape from their perspective and follow it quickly and deeply over the uneven ground. The parts in the upscale venues also pay off, as the auction house staff put truffles in wine glasses so they can better smell the flavor of the product.
A more cynical person might say that the truffle hunting traditions are unlikely to die out while the mushrooms fetch around $ 5,000 a pound. What The Truffle Hunters makes clear, however, is that this is not what their themes are about. They make a living spending a lot of time outdoors with their dogs, and so much the better that guests from America to Russia find their mushrooms delicious. Carlo’s wife has forbidden him to hunt at night because she is afraid he will be injured in the dark, but the final shot of the film shows him climbing out of his window in the early hours of the morning and Titina in for another outing Forest takes away. God give me such a purpose – and flexibility – when I’m 88.
The truffle hunters
Directed by Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw. Rated PG-13.