In the new film “Pig,” Nicolas Cage plays a celebrity Portland chef named Robin Feld, who left the city’s high-end dining scene to live in the Oregon wilderness, hunting for truffles with his beloved pig. The reclusive cook is forced to reappear in town after a 15 year absence to look for the beloved pig that was stolen from him late at night.
“Another pig cannot do what it did,” says a tormented Mr Feld at one point in the film while he is navigating the criminal underworld in search of his animal.
“Pig,” which hit theaters on Friday, is the screenwriting and directing debut of Michael Sarnoski, who said the plot of the film was inspired by stories he heard of truffle hunters camping out on their porches with shotguns at night Fending off competitors.
“I’m not sure where the idea for a truffle hunter came from, but I loved the picture of an old man and a pig together in the forest,” said Sarnoski.
Robin Feld’s search for his pig reveals a dark side of the truffle industry, full of rivalry and sabotage. At one point, a price of $ 25,000 is set for his pet’s life.
As early as the Roman Empire, female pigs were used for truffles because of their sharp nose, the smell of which is similar to the mating pheromones of male pigs. The problem is that the pigs want to eat the truffles when they find them. Truffle pigs can also damage the fragile mushroom structures in the soil and stunt future truffle harvests. 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 vaccinated seedlings to truffle growers. “Almost nobody uses trained pigs.”
He said he knew about a working truffle pig in North America, on Vancouver Island in Canada.
But with dogs or pigs, there is a lot at stake in the search for truffles. In northern Italy and southeastern France, where the most expensive truffles grow, the price can go over $ 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 breed of dogs valued for their truffle skills, can cost up to $ 10,000, and theft of such dogs is a common crime among rival hunters. Poisoning, too, unfortunately. Competitors scatter meat that has been injected with strychnine, an odorless and colorless poison.
“We’re talking about 100 dogs being poisoned in a single season,” said Ryan Jacobs, author of The Truffle Underground, an investigation into the real crimes in the world of truffles.
Mr. Jacobs added, “The guys with the best truffle dogs, the most skilled truffle dogs, often lose their animals to competitors or to people who are trying to get the dog for themselves.”
As with Mr. Cage’s Robin and his dispossessed pig, it is a blow to the handler if a dog is taken away. “I think for the most part, truffle dogs are also family members,” said Mr Lefevre.
“People tend to be so proud of their truffle dogs. It is so remarkable that they can find these treasures underground. I think it is almost a universal experience with truffle dog handlers to be immensely proud, ”said Mr Lefevre, who hunts truffles in his spare time with his two Lagotto Romagnolos, Mocha and Dante.
Sarnoski said he wondered early on if he should set the film to music in the passionate European truffle world, but ultimately chose Portland because of Oregon’s robust domestic truffle industry and “the city’s very strong foodie scene.”
Before he wrote “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 in 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 the recipes to contribute, such as the last dish of the film with pigeons, chanterelles and blueberries, Mr. Rucker wanted to show a feeling for the place.
“What I came up with was a little simpler, less modern than fine dining today, but something with a real Oregon soul,” he said.
Mr. Sarnoski added, “We always knew we wanted to use real dishes from real Portland chefs because that adds authenticity and kind of grounds the film.”
Oregon is home to hundreds of species of truffle with four edible varieties. The business has grown dramatically in recent years, with Oregon black truffles valued at over $ 700 a pound in peak season.
While most of the unsavory tastes depicted in “Pig” are of the European truffle species, poaching has become a problem in Oregon.
Because of their growing value, Oregon truffles are becoming more and more vulnerable to looting. Truffle poachers use large rakes to dig and dig up everything under the forest floor, exposing delicate root systems as well as ripe and unripe truffles. The inferior truffles lower prices, and the excavation methods used to mine them leave scars and exposed landscapes.
However, Mr Lefevre said: “I am not aware of anyone poisoning a dog or stealing a truffle dog. I don’t think anything like this has ever happened before. “
But what about the anachronistic pig?
Sarnoski acknowledged the prevalence of dogs today, but said that pigs are “just a lot more unique and adorable”. Brandy, the pig used in the film, is not a truffle hunting pig or even a professional movie pig.
“We found the cutest pig we could find and tried to train her to be presentable in the film,” said Vanessa Block, the film’s co-writer.
For Mr Sarnoski, Robin Feld’s human-pig relationship tends to represent a traditional, rural way of life. “The Rob character represents a bit of an older world and a more traditional way of doing things, and a pig just embodies that,” he said. “That was the classic way, even if we may have found a better way.”