Californians Claim
                   To Unearth Secret
                   Of Raising Truffles
                   ---
                   Skeptical Europeans Suspect
                   It Is an American Scam;
                   Coming Soon to Safeway?
                   By Joan E. Rigdon

                   03/25/1994
                   The Wall Street Journal
                   PAGE A1
                   (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
                   says.

                   Only one other American, Franklin Garland of Hillsborough, N.C., claims
                   success raising truffles, but his 500 trees have yielded only five pounds so
                   far.

                   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
                   completely understands.

                   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
                   do it."

                   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
                   rate.)

                   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
                   gem cutter.

                   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.
 

                    -30-
 

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