To Unearth Secret
Of Raising Truffles
Skeptical Europeans Suspect
It Is an American Scam;
Coming Soon to Safeway?
By Joan E. Rigdon
The Wall Street Journal
(Copyright (c) 1994, Dow Jones & Co., Inc.)
MENDOCINO COUNTY, Calif. -- William Griner roots around the
base of a young hazelnut tree and uncovers the fruit of a decade of
secretive labor: a warty black glob.
This lowly lump is none other than the black diamond truffle, an allegedly
aphrodisiac fungus that is credited with revving up the sex drives of King
Henry IV and Emperor Claudius of Rome. But it is best known for the
way its pungent aroma boosts the natural flavors of other foods,
converting ordinary meals into gourmet feasts. The black truffle is so
prized, so difficult to cultivate and so increasingly rare that it fetches $350
to $500 a pound.
Mr. Griner, a 44-year-old handyman with a blond ponytail, plans to
change all that.
In a secluded spot in these mountains, where helicopters hover in search
of illegal marijuana crops, Mr. Griner says he and two partners, Don
Reading and Bruce Hatch, have perfected a method that produces high
yields of truffles. This growing season (it ends in March), they say they
harvested 12 pounds of truffles from 39 trees whose roots had been
treated with truffle fungus before they were planted 12 years ago (the
tubers grow on the roots). Across the Atlantic, truffle farmers swear it
takes about 400 trees to produce that much.
Mr. Griner plans to license more farmers, plant thousands more trees and
bust the European stranglehold on the truffle market within five years.
"The more the merrier," he says with a grin.
Mr. Reading, a 49-year-old gem cutter, has a bigger dream: He would
like to see truffles for the masses, stocked even in supermarket chains. "If
you could put a billion trees in the ground, Safeway might see one," he
Only one other American, Franklin Garland of Hillsborough, N.C., claims
success raising truffles, but his 500 trees have yielded only five pounds so
Truffle propagation is a mysterious business. The tasty fungus grows in a
decidedly hit-or-miss relationship with the roots of certain trees and so far
has resisted being cultivated to produce reliable, high yields. World
production of the black diamond truffle has dwindled to a mere five to six
tons last year from 2,000 tons in the 1910s, thanks to targeted bombings
of truffle fields during both world wars and other reasons no one
Against this backdrop, the Europeans darkly suspect that these
Californians are trying to pull off some kind of vol a l'americaine, or con
game. Truffles cultivated by the bushel in America? "Impossible!" says
Rosario Safina, the native Italian president of Urbani Truffles USA, a unit
of Urbani SNC of Italy, which describes itself as the biggest truffle
company in the world. Three years ago, Mr. Safina verified that a truffle
he received from Mr. Griner was the real thing. But he doesn't believe
America can produce a commercial crop.
"If someone is telling you that, it's not true. It can't be done," Mr. Safina
says. He adds: "If no big truffle companies in Europe have the secret, I
can't imagine why someone in California who is not in the business would
One of the world's most esteemed truffiers, 67-year-old Jacques Pebeyre
of Cahors, France, suspects that the California truffle "is not what is
called the truffle in France." Mr. Pebeyre, the grandson, son and father of
truffiers, hasn't actually seen one of Mr. Griner's truffles, and says he will
withhold final judgment until he has. In the meantime, Mr. Griner has won
over some leading chefs to his product, including a personal friend of Mr.
Pebeyre's, Jacky Robert, the French-born owner of Amelio's, a
restaurant in San Francisco.
Mr. Robert served his customers Mr. Griner's truffles alongside French
truffles in a blind taste test one day last year. The verdict: Mr. Griner's
truffles "were as good as the French," Mr. Robert says. If the French
claim otherwise, that's because "most French are chauvinists," he says.
The Europeans have reason to be suspicious, however. Truffle lore is full
of tales of con artists who bilked buyers by dyeing a less-flavorful breed
of truffle black, or by packing worm holes in the tubers with dirt to make
them weigh -- and cost -- more.
There also has been talk before of supplying truffles to the masses. Arotz
SA of Madrid planted some 300,000 fungustreated trees in the 1970s,
but 20 years later remains a minor player in the market.
In California, a microbiology professor once claimed he could grow
truffles in test tubes, but in 1991, his California Truffle Co. filed for
bankruptcy after only a year.
Mr. Griner admits that growing truffles is tricky. He bought 100 saplings
treated with truffle fungus in the early 1980s and planted them in hopes of
one day having money to retire on. For the next several years, he and his
partners read reams of truffle literature and, figuring all the printed
methods had failed, avoided trying any. Instead they devised their own
techniques: One year they spread rabbit manure on the tree roots.
Another year, they set New Age crystals out in the field. But the final
secret is no hocus-pocus but "the most obvious thing in the world," Mr.
Reading says cryptically.
Mr. Griner finally dug up the orchard's first truffle in 1987, five years after
the trees were planted. He says he screamed so loud that tenants in a
house 100 yards away came out to see if he was all right. Confident it
was the first of many, Mr. Griner ate the truffle on the spot -- "as soon as
I chased the worms out of it."
He was right. The next year he found several and tried to sell them, calling
more than 30 chefs in the San Francisco area, but they all politely
declined to buy. "Then word got back to me that they thought I was
getting them from France and trying to resell them" at higher prices, Mr.
Griner says. (Figuring his truffles retained their flavor longer than French
ones, Mr. Griner was charging $900 a pound, nearly triple the going
The big break came last year, when Mr. Griner and his partners caught
the attention of Dafne and Mats Engstrom, owners of California Sunshine
Fine Foods Inc., a San Francisco caviar supplier. Ms. Engstrom was
buying stones to be made into jewelry and happened on Mr. Reading, the
The Engstroms never before had seen a truffle farm, but they have eaten
and studied Mr. Griner's tubers. They are convinced that his claims are
true. Indeed, they have staked their reputation on it by selling the truffles
to prized customers, including Stars Restaurant in San Francisco and The
Four Seasons in New York.
Mr. Griner concedes his currently tiny truffle orchard isn't much of a
threat to the Europeans -- yet. He maintains his truffles are superior in
many ways to the competition, but he won't give details. "I don't want to
scare the French too much," he says.
Back to Joan's clips