"That's a monster," Jamie Ryan said, as he traced the edges of a black lump half-buried in the ground. He scooped away more soil before lifting his prized find in the air. ''And here's the first truffle!''
Mr Ryan, head chef and co-owner of County Dining in Morpeth, is part of a group of chefs in the Hunter region who are learning to search for one of the world's most exalted ingredients, at Rosewood farm in the southern highlands.
They are part of a growing number of chefs who have embraced the paddock to plate philosophy but rarely have the chance to venture into the regions of some of their produce. They are increasingly relying on industry tours, such as the trufferie trip hosted by food consultant Tawnya Bahr, to visit farms.
Chefs such as Lauren Murdoch from Three Weeds and Darren Templeman, owner of Restaurant Atelier, fossicked for black truffles on the Marulan property earlier in the truffle season.
"Last year we had just one truffle hunt for chefs. This season we had three. Considering the demand, next year we will have five," Ms Bahr said.
The latest group was accompanied by Duncan Garvey, the man who introduced truffle farming to Australia two decades ago.The group followed three-year-old kelpie, Lilly, as she darted between trees to smell out ripe truffles. Restaurateur Lisa Margan from Margan winery in the Hunter Valley was impressed by the strong and heady aroma of the fungi. She has featured black truffles on her winter menus to highlight the importance of seasonal produce.
At the farmhouse, Mr Ryan scrubbed 562 grams of dirty truffles under cold running water with a hard bristled brush.
"With such a fine and delicate ingredient it's not what you expect to do," he said. "It's almost like breaking the rules."