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NEW YORK (Reuters) - From the truffle-infused beef-cheek ravioli at Babbo restaurant in New York to the all-black-truffle menu at La Toque in Napa Valley, California, the pungent mushroom has conquered the summer menu and is no longer just a treasured winter treat.
The black-truffle summer craze is the result of a confluence of events, some of which were decades in the making.
"It's a whole new ball game," said Ken Frank, La Toque's owner and chef. "Winter truffles in summertime are a game changer."
The rules of the summertime-truffle game started to change in the 1960s, when French researchers started to learn how to cultivate black, or Perigord, truffles outside their native habitat.
The most prized truffles come from southern France, northern Italy and northern Croatia, and are available only from December to the end of January. Other black-truffle varieties picked earlier are generally considered to be inferior in aroma and flavor.
In the 1990s researchers and farmers started growing black truffles in Tasmania, the Australian island state, to sell from June through August. But truffles are difficult to cultivate.
"It took our people seven years to grow our first truffle and 11 years to get a commercial crop," said Frank Brunacci, vice president of sales for Truffle & Wine Co., which owns a 40-hectare farm in western Australia.
In addition to growing problems, the Australians had to overcome American restaurateurs' reluctance to use non-European truffles.
"No one had thought of truffles coming from anywhere besides from France or Italy," Brunacci said. "But now we don't have an eight-month wait anymore."
In 2009, Truffle & Wine Co. sold 180 pounds (81 kilos) of black truffles to the United States, Brunacci said. This year U.S. sales rose to more than 700 pounds, and around 11,000 pounds globally. The company supplies black truffles to about 250 American restaurants a week during the summer, including La Toque.
"Last year was the first year out of 17 that we made a profit out of truffles," Brunacci said.
Improvements in technology have made distribution and shipping easier. Dino Borri, head buyer for the food market chain Eataly, which only sells European truffles, said the delicacy can now be shipped anywhere in the United States.
"You used to have to buy and consume a truffle more or less in the same day. Now you could maintain a fresh truffle for about a week," he said.
Americans are also ready for truffles, which once evoked images of snooty French waiters.
"In the last two to three years, the next generation of foodies has come of age," he said. "They've become pretty sophisticated."
For truffle fanatics, the next step is to make the more expensive white truffle available in summer. But so far attempts have failed.
Frank is skeptical that farmed white truffles will ever be commercially viable.
"Too many stars have to line up in a row for white truffles," he said. "It's the holy grail, for sure."
Editing by Patricia Reaney and Leslie Adler