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Fun guys to be around?

Sarah Helm crams the last film of the CFS season – The Truffle Hunters – and other fungi-related matters into her latest blog... there's not mushroom!

As CFS prepares to screen the last picture show of this current season, members are invited to attend the AGM and celebrate what has been another triumphant year for the society.

An event is promised that will be as glitzy and glamorous to which regulars have become accustomed (the well-stocked bar will be open and seats in the auditorium remain cushioned), but those desiring the finer things need look no further than the final film of 2021/22, The Truffle Hunters (2020).

What are truffles?

A truffle is a variety of fungi which grows, entirely underground, on the roots of trees and are mainly found in Italy and other countries with Mediterranean climates.  Both black and white truffles are considered delicacies and come with a hefty price tag, due to being a seasonal commodity which cannot be cultivated.  They grow best in moist environments and can magically appear overnight after heavy rain, if you know where to look.

Truffles

As a side note, on a recent and much anticipated holiday to Northern France, the family visited a lovely market to sample local wares. Deciding to try something new, I bought a small portion of truffle-infused cheese, to be the centrepiece for lunch.  Upon seeing the price, my husband was aghast, but managed to appease himself by chomping down the delicacy in two swift bites.  Turns out you can buy class – it’s 39 euros a kilo. But I digress.

The Truffle HuntersPrincipally filmed in the beautiful forests of Piedmont, northern Italy, The Truffle Hunters documents the triumphs and misadventures of a group of septo- and octogenarian men, who have dedicated their lives to the search for Alba truffles.  The rare fungi cannot be reproduced in a lab and have become so sought after that a lucrative international market has emerged. Filmed in a series of static vignettes, of which Wes Anderson would be proud, The Truffle Hunters follows the group of pensioners and their trusty dogs as they perilously search for precious earthnuts, often in the dead of a winter’s night.

Directed by Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw, who previously made a stock car documentary The Last Race (2018), The Truffle Hunters is a bittersweet tale of men and their dogs, traditions, and the gluttony of capitalism. It received largely universal critical acclaim upon release and was due to open at Cannes before Covid caused the Festival’s cancellation.

Little is mentioned in the documentary about specifics of training the dogs or the exact locations of how to retrieve the elusive fungi.  The hunters themselves are reluctant to divulge their secrets to the next generation and there is a sense that the art of retrieval will die out when the last man hangs up his spade. There is also a stark contrast in the amount that the truffle hunters are paid for their obsessive toil and expertise, compared to the exorbitant prices paid for the delicacy by brokers or at auction houses in international bidding wars – all for the end product to end up as a tasty garnish on a plate of gourmet pasta or risotto.

Slim pickings

Perhaps in a bid to preserve both the art of truffle hunting and the beautiful environments in which the treasures grow, there is little filmic media to be found on the subject. An IMDB search produces slim pickings in the way of films with a strong connection to truffles, aside titles about cooking with expensive ingredients.  Know Your Mushrooms (2008), sees director Ron Mann attending the Telluride Mushroom Festival in Colorado, and documenting the scientific and culinary uses of many types of fungi, to an accompanying soundtrack from the Flaming Lips.

Staten Island Truffle Hunter (2013) is a comedy short about a hustler (Chris DiSefano) trying to get by on his ability to source truffles which are growing wild on the mean streets of New York – which, if nothing else, is an original premise.

Other more tenuous contenders include The Truffle Runners (2018), where a pair of would-be milk-tray men (things ain’t what they used to be…) need to deliver an expensive box of chocolates to an aggressive member of the mob. Their task is hindered somewhat when the contents get eaten by mistake…(for future reference, Charbonnel et Walker are available in Waitrose…).

The children’s adventure The Goonies (1985), directed by Richard Donner and penned by Steven Spielberg, features a band of 80s stereotypes who go searching for treasure. The cult classic contains one memorable scene in which overweight comedy-foil Chunk has to perform a dance that makes his stomach jiggle up and down, while delighted onlookers cry out ‘Truffle Shuffle’. Only then is he allowed into the clubhouse with the rest of his ‘friends’.

Oh the 80s, when fat-shaming was merely a sport, no jokes were off limits, and all complaints of bullying were met with ‘Snap out of it, stop being so sensitive’. Goonies are good enough!  (But only the skinny ones apparently – stick that in your pie hole.)

Those looking for something more up market (and perhaps more in keeping with the ethos of CFS), might be well served in referencing the back catalogue of the godfather of French New Wave cinema, François Truffle… (There’s no need to vote at the AGM about the quality of that pun, but given the brief, what did you expect?  And oui, Jules et Jim were also nonplussed – but was it ever thus?)

The Whole HogWhich brings us to the old adage, you wait decades for a film about truffle hunting and then two come along at once.  2021 saw the release of Pig, directed by Michael Sarnoski and starring Nicolas Cage as Rob, a retired chef turned truffle hunter, whose beloved porcine companion is stolen, causing him to embark on a mission to find the perpetrators. (The second Nic Cage reference in two editions?  What kind of blog is this?!) Although the film received positive reviews from the critics, and the poster features a menacing leer by its star, completists may be disappointed that the tone is a subdued affair and that the lead actor does not go ‘Full Cage’.  There is no line, sadly, urging the bad guys to ‘Put the piggy in the blanket’. 

Man’s Best FriendThe running theme throughout both Pig and The Truffle Hunters is that of the close relationship the men develop with their animals.  Cage’s Rob is a recluse who lives in a cabin in the woods with only his pet for company.  The Truffle Hunters in this CFS screening have a variety of relationship statuses, but the ones that remain constant throughout are the loyalty between the men and their dogs. Together they seek out the adventure of locating the Alba truffles, risking poisoning, flooding and the wrath of exasperated wives all the while, in order to secure their prizes.

We hope you enjoy the final film of the 53rd Season and will return to The Elgiva in the Autumn for the start of the new programme.  And next time you see truffles on a menu, spare a thought for those who foraged in the wee-small hours to get it on your plates.