“Another pig can’t do what she did,” an anguished Feld intones at one point in the movie, as he navigates the criminal underworld in search of his animal.
“Pig,” which was released in theatres Friday, is the feature-film writing and directing debut of Michael Sarnoski, who said the movie’s plot was inspired by stories he had heard of truffle hunters who camp on their porches at night with shotguns to fend off competitors.
“I’m not sure where the idea of a truffle hunter first came from, but I just loved the image of an old man and a pig in the woods together,” Sarnoski said.
Robin Feld’s journey to find his pig unearths a dark side of the truffle industry, full of rivalry and sabotage. At one point, a price of $25,000 is put on the life of his animal.
As far back as the Roman Empire, female pigs were used for their keen nose for truffles, the smell of which is similar to the mating pheromones of male pigs. The problem is, the pigs want to eat the truffles once they’ve found them. Truffle hogs can also damage the fragile fungal structures in the soil, stunting future truffle crops. In 1985, Italy banned the use of truffle pigs for this reason.
“Most truffle hunters around the world use trained dogs,” said Charles Lefevre, a forest mycologist and founder of the Oregon Truffle Festival and New World Truffieres, a company that sells inoculated seedlings to truffle growers. “Almost nobody uses trained pigs.”
He said he knew of one working truffle pig in North America, on Vancouver Island in Canada.
But by means canine or porcine, truffle hunting is high stakes. In Northern Italy and southeastern France, where the most expensive truffles grow, the price can top $10,000 a pound. Poaching, theft, tax evasion, fraud and poisoning have corrupted the rare and luxurious truffle industry.
A fully trained Lagotto Romagnolo, the Italian dog breed prized for its truffling abilities, can cost as much as $10,000, and stealing such dogs is a common crime among rival hunters. Unfortunately, so is poisoning. Competitors scatter meat injected with strychnine, an odourless and colourless toxin.
“We’re talking upward of 100 dogs in a single season” that are poisoned, said Ryan Jacobs, author of “The Truffle Underground,” an investigation of true crimes in the world of truffles.
Jacobs added, “The guys with the best truffle dogs, the most skilled truffle dogs, are often losing their animals to either competitors, or people who are trying to get the dog for themselves.”
As with Cage’s Robin and his expropriated pig, it is a blow to the handler when a dog is taken. “I think, in the majority of cases, truffle dogs are also family members,” Lefevre said.
“People tend to be so proud of their truffle dogs. It’s such a remarkable thing that they find these treasures underground. I think it’s almost a universal experience with truffle dog handlers to have an enormous amount of pride,” said Lefevre, who truffle hunts recreationally with his two Lagotto Romagnolos, Mocha and Dante.
Sarnoski said he wondered early on if he should set the film in fervid European truffle world, but he ultimately decided on Portland because of Oregon’s robust domestic truffle industry and the city’s “very strong foodie scene.”
Before writing “Pig,” he had never been to Portland, and had only eaten truffles once. To get a taste of Oregon, the film crew went on a truffle hunt and dined at many local restaurants.
Gabriel Rucker, the chef at Le Pigeon, and Chris Czarnecki, the chef at Joel Palmer House, in Dayton, Oregon, consulted on the film. When choosing which recipes to contribute, like the film’s final dish of pigeon, chanterelles and huckleberries, Rucker wanted to showcase a sense of place.
“What I came up with was a little bit simpler, less modern than food has gotten today in fine dining, but something with a real Oregon soul,” he said.
Sarnoski added, “We always knew we wanted to use actual dishes from actual Portland chefs because it lends authenticity and sort of grounded the film.”
Oregon is home to hundreds of species of truffles, with four edible varieties. The business has grown dramatically in recent years, with Oregon black truffles valued at more than $700 per pound in peak season.
While most of the unsavoriness depicted in “Pig” is the kind found in European truffling, poaching has become a problem in Oregon.
Because of their growing value, Oregon truffles are becoming more susceptible to plundering. Truffle poachers use large rakes to dig and churn up everything below the forest floor, unearthing delicate root systems along with ripe and unripe truffles. The low-grade truffles bring prices down, and the digging methods used to retrieve them leave the landscape scarred and exposed.
Still, Lefevre said: “I’m not aware of anybody poisoning anybody’s dog or stealing a truffle dog. I don’t think anything like that has ever happened.”
But what of the anachronistic pig?
While acknowledging the prevalence of dogs today, Sarnoski said that pigs are “just way more unique and adorable.” Brandy, the pig used in the movie, is not a truffle-hunting pig, or even a professional movie pig.
“We found the cutest pig we could find, and sort of tried to train her to be presentable in the film,” said Vanessa Block, the film’s co-writer.
For Sarnoski the man-pig relationship represents Robin Feld’s more traditional, bucolic way of life. “The Rob character kind of stands for a little bit of an older world and a more traditional way of doing things, and a pig just kind of embodies that,” he said. “That was the classic way of doing it, even though we’ve found maybe a better way.”
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