26 July/August 2014
GROW, LIT TLE TREE, GROW
cuisine, each prepared by a different Michelin-star chef. In more ways than miles, Napa
was a long, long way from the cold, muddy
field I’d planted with spaghetti trees.
Seated across the table from us was a
charming woman in her 80s, wearing a gorgeous royal blue sequined gown and dripping with diamonds. Someone whispered
that our dinner companion was Margrit
Mondavi, the widow of Robert Mondavi,
founder of the billion-dollar winery that
bears his name. Not forgetting my Southern
manners, I walked around and knelt down
beside her chair to introduce myself.
“You look lovely,” I added. “What a
“Well,” she warbled in a lilting Swiss
accent, “we must honor the truffles!”
A few months after planting my truffle
orchard, when I returned to North Car-
olina to check on my baby trees, I found
them not merely alive, but leafed out, green
and growing! I was thrilled. If all contin-
ued to go well, in five to seven years, just
about the time Bob hoped to retire, the
truffle fungus should mature enough to
fruit, yielding the pungent brown blobs that
command so much reverence — and such
high prices — in the culinary world.
In the meantime, I’d need to be diligent
in maintaining my orchard. So I found
someone to mow the grass, weed around
the trees and monitor the irrigation sys-
tem. I had plastic tubes placed around each
seedling to deter hungry rabbits and a deer
fence installed around the entire orchard to
protect tender leaves and shoots once they
topped the tubes.
I thought I’d covered all the bases, done
my research, partnered with professionals,
followed their every recommendation. But
I’d never suspected that my entire enterprise could be undone by a burgeoning
population of tiny ravenous rodents.
I didn’t sleep that night of the voles. I
didn’t catch my flight the next morning
either. Instead I drove back to the farm,
walked each orchard row and tugged on
each individual tree, hundreds and hundreds
of them. All told, I’d lost only 50. Thank
God. I called my orchard manager, and
we devised a serious vole eradication plan.
Each season since has brought new
challenges. Runaway ragweed. Broken
irrigation lines. Leaf-eating bugs. Powdery
mildew. Not to mention reports of filbert
blight and feral hogs elsewhere in the state.
Agriculture is risky.
But five years into my truffle adventure, nearly all of my trees have continued
to thrive. They tower over me now, their
branches reaching high into that Carolina
blue sky, their roots, thick with truffle fungus, spidered deep into the red clay soil of
Grandpa’s old tobacco field.
It’s time. This is the summer we’ve
been waiting for, the first summer we can
legitimately hope to harvest truffles. I have
a trained dog standing by to sniff them
out. (Pigs are so 19th century.) Chefs in
Charlotte and San Diego are sharpening
their truffle slicers. And Bob is on target to
retire next year.
Agriculture is risky.
Truffle cultivation, while well established
in Europe and Australia, is still a largely
unproven business here in the States. There’s
never been any guarantee that I could grow
summer truffles in North Carolina. But I
believe. I have always believed.
Come on, baby trees, I’m betting on
Sandra Millers Younger ’ 75 is an award-winning magazine journalist and founder of
and master story strategist at Strategic Story
Solutions. She’s also the author of The Fire
Outside My Window: A Survivor Tells the
True Story of California’s Epic Cedar Fire.
A Phi Beta Kappa journalism graduate of
Carolina, she also earned a master’s degree in
magazine journalism at Syracuse University,
where she studied on a Syracuse Graduate
Fellowship. She and her husband, Bob, moved
to San Diego in 1982. For the past 10 years,
they have lived in Wildcat Canyon, the area
worst hit by the Cedar Fire. For more, go to
Agriculture is risky. But five years into my truffle adventure,
nearly all of my trees have continued to thrive. They tower
over me now, their branches reaching high into that Carolina
blue sky, their roots, thick with truffle fungus, spidered deep
into the red clay soil of Grandpa’s old tobacco field.
Sandra Millers Younger ’ 75