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Gathering around the dinner table with friends and family at their Alameda home is what grounds Fabrice and Claudia Caporal and their two children, and they’ve put down roots in the island city’s community.
Their thoughts, however, are increasingly focused on an orchard 2 1/2 hours away in Lake County, where they have established roots of another kind.
More precisely, they are cultivating a wonderfully aromatic edible fungi that grows in tandem with the roots of certain trees: truffles.
Not just any truffles, either. The Caporals’ English oak tree roots are inoculated with tuber melanosporum, to produce the famous French black Perigord truffles.
The culinary delicacies, known as black diamonds or black gold, look like irregular potatoes after being unearthed and can fetch more than $1,000 per pound. The earthy aroma of a truffle, often shaved sparingly over food, enhances a dish and makes them a sought-after ingredient by chefs — especially those in well-known restaurants around the wine country and the Bay Area.
For the Caporals, truffles are the perfect metaphor for “l’art de la table,” combining the family’s love of fine dining and connecting with others.
“Community and food, being around the table with friends and family, these are the things that are important to us,” said Claudia, sitting at a long kitchen table in their Alameda home near South Shore Beach.
The Caporals’ orchard enterprise is called Clos Racines, inspired by Fabrice’s native France, where his family had a small orchard.
Located along a narrow road in the hills of Lake County, Clos Racines was planted over the last two years, with the most recent seedlings going into the ground in April, for a total of 3,600 trees.
At 26 acres, it’s the largest site devoted to truffle farming in California thus far, according to Charles Lefevre, an Oregon mycologist who supplies trees inoculated with the fungus.
Although truffles embody the best of fine dining, cultivating them is not simply a matter of planting young trees, then patiently sipping a good Pinot Noir while waiting for the underground fungi to be sniffed out by trusty truffle dogs.
The Caporals are already finding that it takes diligence, endurance, problem-solving and time to see results.
A lot of time — possibly up to a decade.
“If we’re lucky, we will have our first truffles in five to seven years,” Fabrice said.
In the meantime, they will need to fend off voracious gophers and vigorous bindweed, which are already relentless in the Lake County orchard. And since the orchard is organic, the Caporals have ruled out and pesticides and herbicides to help protect the young trees. They have laid hundreds of gopher traps and remove bindweed by hand.
On a recent May morning, the couple walked the orchard on a sunny day, checking for bindweed and new signs of gopher damage. A rabbit bounded through the rows with long hops and hawks circled overheard.
“There’s a recent one,” said Fabrice, pointing to a mound of dirt. The couple inspected the telltale sign of gophers and nearby saplings. Removing one tube, they found a brownish young tree that looked like it may have succumbed. But Fabrice pulled on it and decided it still had some life.
“It’s still alive, it may come back,” he said.
Most of the little trees are vigorous; some that were planted a year ago are bursting from their protective tubes to follow the sun.
The land was once a pear orchard, but a previous owner dug it up with hopes of planting grape vines. That didn’t come to pass and the Caporals bought the site after ruling out other locations that were closer to the Bay Area but didn’t have water rights.
Their site is flanked by other orchards and farms, and hills scorched by last fall’s deadly wildfires. The blaze singed 5 acres of their property – fortunately an area that hadn’t been planted yet.
Fabrice, a computer programmer who also studied marine biology, said the truffle orchard idea came about when he decided he wanted to work with his hands, and his French background was an inspiration. After learning that truffle orchards were possible outside of Southern Europe, he was hooked.
“I knew what I wanted to do with the rest of my life,” he said.
In recent decades, truffle cultivation has been increasing in North America, according to Lefevre. His New World Truffieres company, based in Eugene, Oregon, began selling oaks, hazelnuts and other trees inoculated with the fungi in 2001.
He has supplied trees to dozens of orchards, including the Caporals’. So far, 20 have already produced their first truffles and 11 of those are producing enough to sell to chefs and restaurants, Lefevre said.
“The North American truffle community is expanding and poised for success, especially as more dedicated farmers begin to plant orchards, building on the success of the pioneers. We anticipate steady growth of truffle harvests for decades to come.”
Although secrecy and mystique traditionally have surrounded the truffle, Lefevre is dedicated to sharing information about cultivating the fungus. He started the annual Oregon Truffle Festival in 2006 to spread the word about his state’s native truffles.
Between Lefevre’s company and the festival, new orchardists like the Caporals have found a place to share and contribute information with fellow truffle farmers.
“We felt truly welcomed and knew that, with the support of this dedicated community, we could throw ourselves wholeheartedly into this adventure,” Fabrice said.
The truffle is the fruit of fungi that grow in a mycorrhizal relationship with the root systems of the oaks, and helps the tree absorb water and nutrients. In exchange, the tree supplies the truffle with sugars and starches to help it grow.
Tending to this relationship, by carefully monitoring soil, water and other factors, will be the Caporals’ primary task for the years ahead. They are also experimenting with a section of native oaks inoculated with the fungus to see if they are compatible.
Along the long rows of small oaks in the Lake County orchard, each tree is protected by a tall tube and has its own bar code to record progress. Irrigation is carefully regulated and the soil amended with truckloads of limestone to adjust the soil’s pH to create better conditions for the trees and truffles, Fabrice said.
The Caporals’ children are also pitching in and learning valuable lessons from the orchard, which one day they will inherit, Claudia said. It’s not just about planting trees for what could be a very valuable harvest one day.
“It’s a family project with real-life lessons on endurance, the value of being proactive, of thinking things through, and some things you just don’t learn in school.”
“They see and enjoy the sense of community we’ve created both at home and in the orchard. Our rituals include having friends around the table when the work day is done.”
For more photos of the Caporals’ orchard, go to bit.ly/2HwPwEf