This unremarkable brown lump is why we've trekked all the way to Canberra on a wintery weekend.
This is a Perigord black truffle or tuber melanosporum. It's one of the most expensive food substances on earth fetching up to $3000 a kilo. Why so expensive and who would pay so much money for a innocuous looking tuber?
I'm about to find out.
We're heading to a truffle farm or trufferie on the outskirts of Canberra. French Black Truffles of Canberra is a fledgling enterprise but already proving a money-maker. Last year it produced 65 kilos of high quality truffles.
We pull off Mount Majura Road and park our Bayswater car rental RAV 4 in a paddock near the farm ready for our truffle hunt. It's been a comfortable drive here in our 'no birds' car.
To the untrained eye this just looks like a paddock of trees. But in fact this is the Field of Dreams containing 2,500 trees that have been producing truffles since 2007.
Truffles are formed when fungus spores develop a symbiotic relationship with the roots of specific tree varieties such as hazelnut and oak. They've occurred naturally in forests in Europe for centuries. It has only been in the last few decades that Antipodeans discovered there were similar climate conditions in parts of New Zealand, Tasmania, Margaret River - and here in Canberra.
The only problem the French Black Truffles of Canberra found with their conditions was the pH level of the soil. It was too alkaline. Truffles need a pH of about 8. So the owners trucked in 75 tonnes of lime and dug it in 2 metres into the ground. The property is well-fenced to stop native animals and foxes digging up the prized truffles. All that expense and preparation seems to have paid off. This year the farm expects to double production to 130 kilos.
Farm manager Jayson Mesman is a police dog trainer who 8 years ago turned his dog whispering skills to training truffle dogs. His black Labrador Samson is one of the country's leading truffle dogs. Samson can detect truffles growing deep underground from metres away.
Fungus contamination is a real problem on a truffle farm where infections can spread quickly ruining a crop.
We all need to step into a disinfectant dip before we can begin the hunt.
Participants are truffle ready.
Jayson sends Samson off scurrying through the trees, sniffing at the roots. He quickly zones in on one tree excitedly. Samson is trained to only smell mature truffles that are ready for harvest. Jayson removes some of the dirt under the tree with a knife and sniffs it. Yep there's a truffle under there.
A lucky participant starts gently digging at the dirt using a spoon. This truffle is buried quite deep under the surface.
Eh Viola! We all get to hold the buried treasure. The aroma is intoxicating. It smells of mushrooms and forest and wet leaves. A truffle exude up to 80 different compounds
Jayson explains that an 'A' grade truffle should have a firm surface covered in tiny diamond shapes. And when you cut into it there should be a rich veining of white. There are some tubers that look like truffles so you need to be wary of fakes.
Back at the truffle shed Jayson gently washes our truffle with a soft brush and some water to remove the mud. It reveals a prize truffle worth at least $300! Truffles can vary in size from 2 cm to the size of a grapefruit.
While the farm's truffle dogs are the current truffle-detection stars, Jayson hopes his two Wessex Saddleback pigs, Winnie and Piglet, can eventually be trained to 'bring home the bacon' so-to-speak.
With the scent of truffle in the air, it's time to put them to a taste test.
We walk further down the hill to the farm's cooking demonstration tent.
The hungry hoards are gathering...
Chef Andrew Haskins, from 3 Seeds Cooking School, has planned a 'Death by Truffle' degustation lunch for us today.
Andrew is not a believer in the practice of just 'shaving' truffles onto a dish. He's passionate about 'infusing' them into an array of products from salt to olive oil to eggs and honey.
Andrew believes this layering creates a deeper more satisfying flavour. It's certainly the best cauliflower soup I've ever tasted.
Then we try some truffle-infused scrambled eggs (from eggs that have been put in a glass jar with a piece of truffle and left for a few days). He then adds truffled butter, truffled salt, and truffled cream to the simmering eggs. When too much truffle is barely enough. Delish.
I had no idea truffles could be enjoyed so many ways...
Truffles can be beautifully showcased in scrambled eggs. Possibly their perfect match.
Andrew truffles his own brie by slicing a round through the centre, inserting some truffle pieces and then sandwiching the halves back together.
Generous truffle slices are strewn over a mushroom sauce with pasta...
That brie is used on some baked figs, doused with truffle honey.
...I may soon turn into a truffle..
...but wait there's more.... prawns that have been cyro-vaced in truffled butter are tossed in a hot pan.
.. and then served on some pasta.
... as close to divinity as food can take you.
I'm losing count of the array of truffle dishes...
These are truffled whole Portobello mushrooms encased in butter puff and then backed for 30 minutes. The pastry seals in all those glorious truffle aromas. I've run out of room but others steam on...there is still veal and desserts - pannacotta, chocolate truffle-infused truffles....
As the winter sun sets outside, we float out of the tent in a cloud of truffle. For $180.00 we had an adventure, an education and then a lunch fit for a king. I know you're already making your booking. But remember truffle season in only for a few weeks every year so hurry.
We head back to our hotel ...
The Hotel Kurrajong has been a favourite of ours for years and has just undergone an extensive remodelling.
It was the residence of Australian Prime Minister Ben Chifley and the refurbishment captures the décor of the 1920s.
The hotel's restaurant Chifley's Bar and Grill takes it's inspiration from what a simple bloke like Chifley would have liked to have eaten - meat, meat and more meat.
The foyer has a cosy art deco lounge arranged around the original fireplace and mirror.
Complimentary fabric and carpet designs have been expertly selected.
Our room is luxurious, with fabrics and fittings echoing the same turquoise and caramel palette.
This feels like a home you can keep coming back to.
Small but stylishly designed bathroom.
I know it seems hardly possible but we have room for dinner - fortunately, given the biting cold tonight, Malamay is only a staggering distance away. It's snuggled in the groovy Burberry Hotel. in the Realm District three streets away.
This modern Szechuan restaurant is dark and comforting with pops of lacquered red in the light fittings and room dividers.
We could be in the study of an emperial noble.
The tasting menu is the best way to sample the kitchen's wonderful technique with texture and heat.
A crab ball comes with squid ink reduction and meaty slivers of smoked portabello.
.. a revelation.
Then there's a Xian-style spicy duck that is so flavourful and cuts like butter.
For dessert a creamy earl grey custard with a salty pretzel.
Owner Josiah Li joins us later with a bottle of Tumbarumba sparkling, and soon the conversation gets loud and raucous with tales of the restaurant trade, life in Canberra and the joys of food. Somehow we make it back to the Kurrajong in the cold inky night and dream of being chased through a paddock by a giant truffle....
Saucy Onion stayed as a guest of the Hotel Kurrajong.
French Black Truffles of Canberra - http://canberratruffles.com.au/
Malamay restaurant - http://malamay.chairmangroup.com.au/
Bayswater car Rentals - https://www.bayswatercarrental.com.au/