Delicacy: An assortment of truffle delights awaits with the Cafe Opera's A Taste of Truffle special. Photo: Supplied
Heavenly, heady, intoxicating, earthy, desirable, potent, pungent, exotic and exhilarating are just some of the superlatives slung at the aromatic Tuber melanosporum, otherwise known as the black Perigord truffle.
Although the truffle industry is still in its infancy in Australia, it is growing by about 30 per cent each year, according to Australian Truffle Growers Association communications officer Lana Mitchell.
Mitchell says the Australian truffle industry is also exporting about 70 per cent of its harvest each year. She says this year's truffle season in Australia - which runs parallel with winter in the southern hemisphere - is expected to yield about 4.65 tonnes of the so-called ''black diamond''.
Growth phase: Australia's truffle industry is growing by about 30 per cent each year. Photo: Supplied
''The industry in Australia is very dynamic because we are one of the few places on the planet having success in commercially growing truffles,'' Mitchell says.
''While it's still a relatively new industry, we have enough commercially viable farms to think the truffle industry in Australia has a bright future.
''The main exports are to Asia but the market in Europe and North America is growing because in the northern hemisphere truffles are considered a winter crop, so the summer production of truffles means it is gaining popularity with chefs who want to use fresh truffles all year round.''
A report by the Australian Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation reveals the harvest of wild and cultivated truffles in Europe has declined significantly, largely because of the deforestation of oak stands, which have a symbiotic relationship with the highly prized Perigord truffle.
In Taking Stock of the Australian Truffle Industry, author Barry Lee states: ''Australia's supply season does not compete directly with that of Europe, which occurs from November to March.
''As a southern hemisphere producer, Australia is a potential counter-seasonal supplier of French black truffles.''
The Australian truffle industry originated in Tasmania in 1992, when the first host trees were inoculated with the truffle fungus. Seven years later, Perigord Truffles of Tasmania harvested its first cash crop and today there are some 200 growers dotted around the country, in the states of NSW, Tasmania, Victoria and the ACT.
Lowes Mount Truffiere in Oberon struck culinary gold six years ago when Col and Sue Roberts' truffle-hunting dog Morris unearthed the farm's first fungi from its mix of host hazelnut and oak trees.
Col says the potential for growth in the Australian truffle industry is huge in light of problems with polluted and contaminated soils in Europe.
As well as filling the void in the European market, the Roberts are passionate about promoting truffle tourism in Australia - through such initiatives as hunts, farmers' markets and farmhouse lunches - and expanding the market through the education of its consumers.
''Australians need to taste a black Perigord truffle and understand just how it enhances food in order to appreciate its worth and why it's valued,'' Col says.
''There are a lot of inferior products out there that infiltrate the market from Asia and because of that, a lot of consumers don't appreciate what the fuss is about because they have never tasted a first-grade truffle. They might say, 'Oh, I know what a truffle is. I had some truffle oil on my steak,' but most truffle oil is synthetic and there is no truffle in the product at all,'' he says.
Roberts, a forester by trade, says although about 200 species of the tubers exist - from the desert truffle (of the Middle East and north Africa) to the inferior Chinese truffle (Tuber indicum) to Italy's precious white truffle from Piedmont - the species treasured by gourmets around the world is the Perigord black truffle.
Compared with Australia's largest truffle farm, the Wine and Truffle Co in Western Australia, which has about 13,000 trees, Lowes Mount Truffiere is a small-scale production, with a farm of about 500 trees.
For the remainder of July, the fruits of the Roberts' labour will be celebrated at the InterContinental Hotel's Cafe Opera, with its A Taste of Truffle menu.
Cafe Opera executive sous chef Julien Pouteau is originally from Brittany, has worked in Michelin-starred restaurants around the world and knows a thing or two about truffles.
Pouteau has tasted freshly harvested Perigord truffles in situ, in France, and he says although the flavours are similar, the aroma of the truffles harvested at Lowes Mount Truffiere is more subdued. ''I love the earthiness of the Australian truffle,'' Pouteau says. ''Taste-wise, it's a first-class product and a pleasure to work with and because the aroma is more subdued, you are able to be more generous with it, which is a lovely benefit … it is so luxurious.
''To get the best from the Australian product, you use it raw, shaved or thinly sliced on top of basic foods such as pasta, polenta, egg or fish.''
Pouteau says he is loyal to Lowes Mount Truffiere because of the quality and consistency of the product and because of the relationship he and executive chef Tamas Pamer have developed with the Roberts family.
''Serving good food is not enough for me,'' Pouteau says. ''The top priority is to know where that food comes from and know our suppliers are doing the right thing.
''I would never consider importing a truffle from France because we are about sourcing local seasonal ingredients and using French technique to present those ingredients,'' says Pouteau, who took part in a truffle hunt at Lowes Mount Truffiere with Pamer at the start of the 2013 season.
Tasting is believing
A Taste of Truffle with Lowes Mount Truffiere includes canapes - truffle-infused quail egg, a potato croquette with truffle aioli, and truffle-infused wagyu bresaola - and truffle and scallop with quince, truffle cabbage and sea urchin sponge. The dinner is available from 6pm in Cafe Opera at the InterContinental Hotel for $85 a head or $115 with matching wines. For bookings, phone 9240 1396.
Truffles from Lowes Mount Truffiere can be purchased online from lowesmounttruffles.com.au or from The Sydney Morning Herald Growers' Market. For more details on where to buy Australian truffles, visit trufflegrowers.com.au.