Saturday, May 21, 2016

My 'On Being Brown' lecture for the Sydney Writers Festival 2016

'On Being Brown' - delivered by Indira Naidoo at the Sydney Writers Festival May 2016

In a country with one of the highest skin cancer rates in the world, where 2,000 Australians die from skin melanomas each year, where 750,000 people are treated for skin cancers annually, why is having a tan still so socially desirable? Indira Naidoo shares her experiences of growing up in Australia with a genetically-enhanced Bondi tan, and asks what our obsession with brown skin says about our ideas of beauty, health, acceptance and belonging.

The portrait of me on the stage was painted by Sydney artist and clothes designer Alicia Hollen for the 2014 Archibald Prize.

While it wasn’t selected as a finalist, I love this painting because of the unusual creative technique Alicia has used. She spent several months sorting through dozens of fashion magazines and cutting out photographic images of skin of every colour and hue. Alicia then glued these ‘skin squares’ onto her canvas to create a collage effect. She then carefully painted over each intricate, individual piece of paper for the final portrait of me.

So my skin is actually a composite of the skin of hundreds of others.

(And if you were wondering, this artwork has already been snapped up by a collector who obviously doesn’t mind having a huge painting of my head in their home.)

I thought this painting would provide an interesting back drop for our discussion today about skin colour.

We all know the vital role our skin plays in our well-being – it’s the largest organ in our body, it tightly wraps our blood vessels and muscles to our skeleton, it regulates our heating and cooling, it protects us from infections and disease.

It is through our skin that we interact with the outside world – and the outside world interacts with us.

Our skin has a vast network of sensory receptors just below its surface particularly on our lips and on our fingertips – and in a few other places as well.

We use our skin to explore and probe.

It’s why we like our skin to be touched. It’s why we like touching the skin of others.

Skin is mesmerising; it’s alluring, it’s delicious. And it comes in the most amazing array of tones and blushes.

Hands up those who like the colour of their skin?

A show of hands from those who aren’t so fond of the colour of their skin?

And hands up those who couldn’t give a toss what their skin colour is?

To experience this ‘skin appeal’, can I ask you to participate in a little exercise for me?

Please turn to the person sitting next to you, and if they say it’s ok, touch the skin on the back of their hand with your fingertips. A gentle stroke - not a grope!  So what was that like? You’ve just begun the first stage of foreplay you know!

As pleasant as skin feels to touch, its skin’s cosmetic value that we’re most obsessed with.

Skin has become a cultural marker.

We’ve elevated its folds and wrinkles, freckles and blemishes to symbolise our health, our wealth, our social status, our attractiveness.

Nowhere is skin – particularly tanned skin - more eulogised than here in our sunny antipodean outpost where skin can take its rightful place in the Holy Trinity alongside sun and surf.

To have tanned skin in Australia is to be bestowed with a sun-kissed gift from the Gods.

Skin has become our calling card. We make all sorts of judgments and assumptions about someone based purely on a person’s skin and most particularly their skin colour.

In Apartheid South Africa where I was born in the 1960s, those assumptions were quite extreme.

This dys-topic society created a savage hierarchy built around skin colour.

Dark-skinned African citizens sat at the bottom of this race ladder and pale-skinned Europeans ordained themselves superior and ruled at the top.

All other citizens were graded according to how dark or light their skin was.

This meant that South African-born, toffee-toned Indians - like me and my family – were trapped on the ladder somewhere in the middle.

In South Africa a person’s skin colour dictated every aspect of their life. Something as genetically random and arbitrary as your skin pigment or how much melanin you had in your skin, would determine everything that happened to you from the cradle to the grave.

Anyone without blanched skin tones was ruthlessly exploited and dehumanised.

There were certain beaches, schools, suburbs, buses, park benches only pale-skinned people could use. Shops had separate entrances; even toilets were colour-coded. Of course only whites could vote.

As soon as they were able to escape, my parents fled their homeland to build a new life for their young family in Australia in the 1970s.

We arrived in a tiny country town called St Marys on the east coast of Tasmania.

The town’s local socialite - the bus driver’s wife - organised an afternoon tea for my mother and my sisters to meet the townsfolk.

The largely Anglo and European immigrants in the community were unaccustomed to meeting dark-skinned people and were fascinated by us. One little girl even asked me if she could touch my skin to see if the colour rubbed off.

Australia’s skin colour codes took a little adjusting too. After being surrounded by black faces in South Africa, now in Tasmania we were surrounded by a sea of white faces. And even more disconcertingly, many of these same white faces wanted to be brown.

It has been a fascinating sociological dysmorphia to witness.

Many pale Australians - we soon learnt - were prepared to go to extraordinary lengths to achieve this colour conversion.

My Anglo friends would spend hours after school, on weekends or during summer holidays stretched out on their towels around the local pool or at the beach scorching under the Australian sun.

They called this peculiar practice ‘sun-baking’.

What I found even more bizarre was that rather than turn the desired shade of brown, most of my friends – instead - went lobster red.

Occasionally their skin blistered painfully - peeling away like a prawn shell.

For days afterwards they were unable to shower, walk or sit comfortably in class. We all laughed it off as a teenage rite of passage.

Even with my brown skin which acted as a semi sun-shield in this harsh climate, I still wore sunblock every day. My family has a medical background so the sun smart directive was always enforced.

I felt a strange social exclusion from the Anglo ‘sunburn culture’.

It was a ritual that deeply puzzled me.

On Monday mornings the girls would share their sunburn horrors with each other but never with me since ‘You’re lucky - you already have brown skin’.

During lunch break they would show off their tan lines, and peel off papery flakes of sunburnt skin from each other’s backs and shoulders.

I became fascinated with what that might feel like.

Once I even painted my entire arm with Clag glue and waited for it to dry so I could ‘peel off’ my skin in a similar fashion.

Now I know differently. What my friends were actually putting their bodies through were second degree burns, and, for 2 in 3 of them, those burns would lead to skin cancer.

Australia has one of the highest skin cancer rates in the world – second only to New Zealand. Melanoma kills an Australian every 6 hours.

2,000 Australians die from skin melanomas each year.

750,000 are treated for skin cancers.

Skin cancers account for 80% of all new cancers diagnosed in Australia.

These are grisly statistics.

I’m sure I’m not telling anyone here anything you don’t already know.

What health authorities are at a loss to explain is, that, while there has been a stabilising of skin cancer rates in some demographics, why is tanned skin still so socially-desirable?

In contrast, smokers and their cancer sticks are treated like social pariahs, excluded from restaurants, bars and public spaces and seen as bad parents.

But sun-bathers are still admired – even revered.

While their tanning addiction or tanorexia may not be killing others, they are certainly putting themselves at risk and putting grievous strains on our public health system at a cost of $4.5 billion a year, according to the Cancer Council.

Sun tanners are victims trapped in an unspoken deadly cultural paradox; a deeply held almost unshakeable belief that tanning makes us look more attractive, thinner, and sexier.

This view is so ubiquitous, so pervasive, it’s hard to imagine a time when we didn’t always think this.

But up until 100 years ago pallor was popular.

Dark-skin was associated with serfdom and toiling in the fields all day. Pale skin indicated you were from the upper classes and led a noble life of leisure indoors.

In fact many aristocrats accentuated their pale skin by applying whitening creams and treatments such as powdered white chalk, and white lead mixed with egg white and vinegar. Treatments as deadly as they sound.

The trend for whiteness came to a halt during the industrial revolution.

As rural workers downed their pitchforks and headed to the mines and factories, they moved into the shadows far away from sunlight. And any leisure time they had was spent inside so they could escape the choking smog and soot of the streets.

The lack of sunlight had health repercussions. Children developed rickets and other bone deformities from Vitamin D deficiencies.

UV rays in sunlight help our bodies manufacture Vitamin D.

Most of us only need about 5 to 15 minutes exposure to sunlight each day to produce the Vitamin D we require. (Although - as an interesting aside - dark-skinned people who have a stronger resistance to UV light need a longer exposure to get their daily dosage.)

Around the turn of the 20th century, doctors began prescribing sunbathing to their patients for a variety of ailments including tuberculosis which was the second leading cause of death in the US in the early 1900s.

A short stay at a seaside health spa or bath, soon became a new sign of wealth for the leisure class.

Here, in Australia, the sun-bathing trend was initially frowned upon.

This is an entry from the Sydney Morning Herald in 1901 head-lined;-

Disgrace at Coogee Beach’

A correspondent made strong comment regarding the behaviour of some sun bathers who visit Coogee, stating certain persons acted in such a manner as to call for the strongest protest from the public and demanded action from the authorities. About 400 men and women ‘indulged in an unrestrained sun bath. Many poses were disgusting to anyone with a true sense of propriety’.

Tanning is believed to have only become truly chic in 1903 when French fashion icon Coco Chanel returned from a Mediterranean holiday with a tan after accidentally getting sunburnt.

Her bronzed limbs set a new beauty precedent.

Many wanted to replicate her look.

But holidays were still aspirational for most people - especially during the war years.

So some women took to dousing their legs with Bovril to create the illusion of a tanned leg that didn’t need stockings - and they had a delicious beef-flavoured afternoon snack at the same time.

By the 1960s Hollywood and jet travel had made sunbathing both glamorous and accessible.

Cary Grant’s permanent radioactive glow was on every screen and billboard, and even the British working classes could afford holiday packages to Spain or Greece to copy his look.

By 2000 a survey of Britons revealed that 50% of people said that returning with a tan was the single most important reason for actually going on holiday.

Of course Australians are lucky in that respect. We don’t need to go anywhere. With our warm weather, long coastline and endless sandy beaches, tanning is accessible and easy. Deadly easy.

Here in Australia, sunburn became a glamorous symbol of the active outdoor lifestyle we all aspired to. Basted in various greases, creams and potions, pallid sun worshippers would lay prostrate, sardined into oily rows on the sand as their skin slowly cooked. 

We had become ‘A Sunburnt Country’ in a way Dorothy McKellar could not have imagined.

But in the 1980s things began to change.

Health campaigns such as Slip, slop, slap’ warned of the dangers of sunburn as sun-lovers started to become cancer statistics.

The sun was now sinister.

Sun-sinners learnt some awful truths.

Getting painful sunburn, just once every 2 years, could triple your risk of melanoma skin cancer.

Sunburn doesn’t have to be raw, peeling or blistering. If your skin has gone pink or red in the sun, it’s sunburnt.

Sunburn is caused by UV from the sun. You can’t feel UV rays –this is why people can still burn on cool days.

And tanning beds and solariums were no safer.

Sun-tan salons were banned across Australia two years ago after they were found to increase the risks of most types of skin cancer.

Sun-tan beds for private use, however, are still legal and black-market ‘backyard’ operations are flourishing.

The social site Gumtree is filled with ads from people desperate to book a session in a tanning bed as a winter pick-me-up.

Teenage boys and girls are still particularly susceptible to the bronzed myth.

23 per cent of teenagers admit to getting sunburnt on weekends compared to only 5 per cent of adults.

So, why are so many Australians still addicted to this high-risk behaviour?

Quite simply studies consistently show we all think tanned people are sexier.

We think we look healthier and more attractive when we have that ‘holiday glow’.

The media and advertising industries reinforce this belief.

And it seems no matter what your skin colour -light or dark - everyone wants to be 50 shades of brown.

In her study ‘Shades of Beauty’ Examining the Relationship of Skin Colour to Perceptions of Physical Attractiveness’, University of Missouri-Columbia researcher Dr Cynthia Frisby, found that people perceive a light brown skin tone, on white people as well as black people, to be more physically attractive than a pale or dark skin tone.

She says she is not surprised coffee-coloured actors and singers such as Halle Berry, Beyonce and Kim Kardashian currently define our 21st century notion of beauty.

Dr Frisby says we can’t fix this bias until we are made aware of it.

Matthew Harrison a doctoral student at the University of Georgia says colourism is alive and well. ‘Colourism’ was a term coined by American writer Alice Walker in 1982 to describe prejudice and discrimination based on skin pigment – or the lack of it.

And of course in many parts of the world this colourism works in reverse to the suntan myth.

The skin whitening industry is a multi-billion dollar global juggernaut. It pushes cosmetic lightening creams and products – many with unsafe mercury levels – at people with dark skin.

Consumers in Asian and African countries are often assaulted with ads depicting dark-skinned people as unhappy or disadvantaged.

The ‘Fair and Lovely’ cosmetic whitening range, which is popular in Asia, recently got itself into hot water when it launched a Facebook App that enabled users to lighten the skin tone of their profile pictures.

It seems many cultures struggle with skin colour and social acceptance.

When my family first came to Australia from South Africa little did we know that Australia had long-controlled its indigenous citizens with its own version of race segregation laws.

Most of these discriminatory laws have now largely been removed from the statute books – but how deeply do the ghosts of the White Australia Policy still haunt our subconscious?

Indigenous Australians are 15 times more likely to be jailed than non-indigenous Australians. Indigenous women make up 34% of the prison population. There’s a greater likelihood that indigenous children will be jailed than complete their Year 12 schooling.

A quarter of the inmates in our prisons and most of those in refugee detention centres have brown skin.

A co-incidence or part of a skin-colour racial bias?

It could be argued that Australia’s ‘bronzed life-saver’ ethos seems to celebrate white people with brown skin but remains a little ambivalent towards brown people with brown skin?

There have been a number of occasions where my sisters - who have slightly darker skin than I do - have experienced the daily casual racism that most pale-skinned Australians are oblivious to… taxis not stopping for them, not being served in a country pub, or a policeman once pulling my sister over while she was going for jog, after a resident reported a ‘suspicious’ character in their neighbourhood.

As a young brown-skinned girl growing up in largely-white Australia, I often came across a skin-colour majority bias when shopping.

Lingerie and undergarments were often labelled - and still today in some cases - as ‘skin-tone’ or ‘flesh-coloured’ or ‘nude’.

But whose skin-tones were these garments replicating? Certainly not mine.

The universally used Band Aid, for instance, was initially only manufactured in one colour – soft pink. The advertising described it as ‘neat, flesh-coloured, and almost invisible. But of course on my skin, pink Band-Aids stand out like a sore thumb.

18 years ago a New York entrepreneur, Michael Panayiotis, saw a yawning consumer hole in the Band-Aid market – particularly amongst African Americans. 

He created Ebon-Aid. ‘The bandage exclusively designed for people of color’. It came in shades called black licorice, coffee brown, cinnamon, and honey beige. Sadly his Band-Aid range wasn’t displayed in stores prominently enough and his Band-Aid revolution never quite took off.

It’s not surprising minorities in majority monocultures can grow up feeling they have the ‘wrong’ colour skin.

When I began presenting the news on ABC TV in the 1990s there weren’t any TV make-up foundations or powders available in Australia for my skin tone. Every brand catered for the pale skin market.

There just weren’t many non-Anglos on Australian television at that time. Actually there still aren’t.

Singer Marcia Hines was so horrified at the strange colours the makeup artists mixed and applied to my face to mimic my skin tone, that she personally brought me back some dark-skin makeup from the US during one of her trips!

Fortunately the ‘MAC’ brand and ‘Bobbi Brownmakeup brands for dark-skin are now widely available in Australia but it does make me wonder what brown-skinned Australians used before.

Reworking a line from a famous frog – being brown hasn’t always been easy’.

So, will there be a time in Australia where sun-tanning - like smoking – is seen as an anachronism of the 20th century? A pursuit that simply went out of fashion?

I don’t know.

As with the anti-smoking campaigns, scaring the public with the threat of death and disease just won’t work.

Instead, the social desirability of the behaviour has to be modified.

This requires not only clever health campaigns but the support of the media and advertising agencies not to keep promoting the suntan look’ or the suntan culture’.

A concerning finding from a recent survey I came across showed that when you remind people that tanning puts them at a higher risk to cancer, they actually want to tan more!

This is apparently because tanning boosts self-confidence and patients will unconsciously seek comfort in precisely the behaviour that puts them at risk.

I hope this doesn’t mean you’ll all be rushing off to the beach after this talk!

But I hope it does mean that you’ll leave here thinking more about how you

can love the skin you’re in – and the skin that everyone else is in.

I personally love my skin. And even if I didn’t have a genetically-enhanced Bondi tan I hope I would still love my skin whatever colour it was.

While I can’t always control how other people interact with my skin, after researching and writing this paper I have a new appreciation of how miraculous skin truly is.

I’m blessed with skin that is healthy and keeps me healthy. Shouldn’t  that be where the conversation begins and ends?

Thank you for coming along today - and for bringing your skin with you.

Thank you.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Subterranean Spice Temple - Indu Restaurant Sydney

Despite my name (Indira Naidoo) and appearance (brown) I have sadly never been to India the country of my forebears. I'm a fifth-generation South-African-born-Indian who grew up in England, Australia and Zimbabwe. My claim to Indian-ness is mostly genetic and therefore rather tentative. (Even my Australian Anglo-Irish husband has visited India twice).
Like most Australians I've only really experienced India through cricket and its exported food culture - and through the ocassional 'Where are you from and why have you never been to your homeland' rant from a sub-continental taxi-driver.

So to say that Indu Restaurant has made me want to visit this fascinating country, like, right now, is a testament to its entrancing powers.

 Mardi Gras night in Sydney and there is a frisson of excitement in the city as sequins, feathers and tiny shorts are dusted off for their once-a-year outing. Unlike the rest of the crowd we're heading to the opposite end of the city centre... to George Street and to the tantalisingly hidden basement entrance on Angel Place of Indu Dining.
As we walk down the concrete steps and through the industrial firedoors to the restaurant bar, we know we're in the right place: the heady aroma of Indian spices is unmistakable.
The restaurant's dimly-lit cocktail bar is a James Bond den of seduction and intrigue. Huge earthenware pots of warming cinnamon sticks, cardamon pods, cumin seeds, and star anise line the Dosa bar's work bench.

It's these aromatic spices combined with a confident modern Australian interpretation, that expertly transforms Indu's menu into the sorts of ethereal dishes you're unlikely to find anywhere else....

         Even Indu's cocktail list gets the spice makeover.

The Village Negroni ($18) combines garam masala-spiced gin with lillet rouge and campari. Then for those with a sweet tooth, there's the already signature cocktail The Kerala Kolada ($19) mixing spiced rum, pineapple, coconut and chai syrup, with a coconut sorbet.

We move through to the main restaurant. Tonight I'm dining with 3 of the best palates in the business - two restaurateurs and my husband who thinks about eating almost as constantly as I do.

As we settle into our gold and green embroidered semi-circle banquettes, our waiter for the evening
Pedro (aka Pesto due to the auto-correct setting on his iPhone's annoying habit of mispelling his name) recommends we start with a Spanish Gin Mare. Our cocktails come served with ice, a slice of sweet mango and a sprinkling of freshly crushed black pepper. Invigorating. This is food foreplay.

The restaurant is starting to pump now.. helped along by an unexpected playlist of rock and pop hits from the psychedelic 70s including Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, Rolling Stones, and Pink Floyd.

 With so many dishes to try, we've decided on the Indu feast with Lamb Raan ($80pp) so the kitchen can showcase the best of its coastal village menu.

To begin our tasting journey along the shores of India and Sri Lanka, Pedro prepares a coconut sambal ($14) at our table using a mortar and wooden ladle. In goes some roasted coconut, red chilli, red onion, and cashew nuts. They're lightly mixed together and served in a coconut shell with some sweet Indian milk buns. The sambal is an explosion of fiery flavour that can be added to all our other dishes.

We're flooded with feel-good dopamines from the chilli. For a moment I'm lost in space and time. I've been transported to a village on a beach surrounded by coconut palms, the air thick with humidity, fishing boats returning with their morning catch, the sand warm between my toes...
... and then I am brought back to Sydney with a jolt, Brown Sugar blasting through the restaurant's speakers. Our next dish has arrived - smoked goat's leg, zucchini ribbon raita, pomegranate, chilli and bacon jam ($18). I am a devotee of goat. A tasty and environmentally-friendly animal that we just don't see enough of on Australian menus.We tear pieces off the crispy, tangy pancake-like dosa and scoop up some curry and accompaniments. Earthy and unctuous but still so light. Such clever cooking.

  Our next dish is a cooling salad of watermelon with mint, cucumber, radish, hung yoghurt and cardamon pomegranate molasses ($16). Exotic and refreshing.

And don't come to Indu without ordering one of the parathas($6). These flatbreads are made at the Dosa Bar and are layered with buttery flakes of the crispiest pastry. It will be hard to stop at one.

More excitement at the table as Pedro delivers the five-spice crusted barramudi on string hoppers (a type of rice noodle) and gently floods the plate with a tumeric and coconut mollee sauce ($34).

The barramundi is robust and flavoursome under that glorious crust. It's so squeaky fresh it was probably swimming happily somewhere just a few hours ago. The sauce however is a little muted and lacks the same zing of our other dishes.

I love a great rice dish and the lemon rice with crispy lentils, smashed peanuts, green chilli and fresh coconut ($9) is a perfect accompaniment....

..... for the highlight of the meal 'The Great' Lamb Raan as the menu describes 'marinated and slow roasted for more than 48 hours with yoghurt and spices and served with fresh mint chutney and lunumiris', a spicy sambal ($45 half serve, $80 full serve). The meat is impossibly tender and fragrant and the mint and sambal balance out that richness. All my fellow diners said this was the dish that knocked it out of the ballpark for them.

Chef Bimal Kumar and his kitchen team are doing the almost impossible here. Within a few months of opening, Indu feels as though it could help redefine modern Indian cuisine in Australia. Owner Sam Prince's committment to supporting local communities in India and Sri Lanka also makes Indu a unique enterprise. He's partnered with the Palmera group, an Australian not-for-profit, that directs some of the restaurant's earnings to needy projects in Asia. The first goal of their 'Village to Village' programme is to build a chicken coup for a community in Northern Sri Lanka. This is food that tastes good and does good as well.

  Despite its serious philosophy Indu knows how to be playful. As our meal winds down we are each presented with a palate cleasing watermelon and mint  popsicle ($6)..... we can make room for the gulab jamun (deep-fried milk curd balls) rolled in coconut sand   and served with saffron anglaise and honeycomb shards ($16). A little rich for me but the rest of the table wolfs it down.

So ends this eating adventure. How fitting that on Mardi Gras night we've dined on food of every vibrant colour of the rainbow. We retire to the bar where it is a little cooler to finish our wines ( By the way, there are some delicious Indian wines on the drinks list you should try).

Indu is a truly exciting dining experience. Whether in couples or celebratory groups the magic of this place is how it uses food to tell our story and bring people together.

The next time you feel like an exotic holiday but only have a night to spare you now know where to go.

photos: Cole Bennetts
Saucy Onion dined as a guest of Indu Restaurant. 

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Adelaide - The Franklin Hotel

It's a chilly Friday afternoon. My conference has wrapped up for the day and I'm ready to kick back at The Franklin Hotel and catch up with Adelaide - my old haunt.

Adelaide's city centre has change enormously in the past few years. New laws allowing small bars has seen hip eateries and designer hotels like The Franklin spring up along laneways and in previously dozy parts of the city.

The Franklin is my type of hotel - low-key but stylish with wonderfully textural fittings and eye-catching pop art. 

Its range of 'dawgs' has already made it a favourite watering hole for the lunch-time crowd and after-work office drinkers. The bar doubles as... well... the bar and hotel reception.

My room is located on the first floor of the elegant stone building next to another bright reading nook.
Each of The Franklin's 7 rooms has been individually-designed with dramatic colour palettes and furnishings.
I'm staying in a deluxe room (a more glamorous way of saying 'standard' ) with a large flat screen TV, iPod docking station, free WiFi and ensuite.
I love the dark, black walls...
...with contrasting pops of yellow... and the light shades which throw playful shadows around the room.
The bathroom has been beautifully renovated in keeping with the era of the building... white subway tiles with a black floor 
...and a huge soaking bath which sadly I didn't get time to enjoy.
One of the best advantages of The Franklin is its location... on Franklin St just a street away from my favourite fresh food markets in the country - the Adelaide Central Market
This is a foodie's paradise. Every type of fruit and vegetable, meat or dairy, pasta or grain from dozens of cultures.
And the quality of the ingredients makes me wish I had a kitchen to cook them in!
 But there's no need to cook. If you're after something a little more high-end than The Franklin's hotdogs, just two blocks away is Adelaide's hottest bar and dining strip Peel St - off Hindley St.
I drop in to Clever Little Tailor and have a delicious Eden Valley Riesling with a bowl of Coriole olives.
 .. then an early dinner at Peel St restaurant a little further down the lane. I manage to get a seat at the bar and watch the expert kitchen prep for a busy night ahead. How can I go past the Masterstock crispy quail with pickled carrot salad and a glass of Mac Forbes chardonnay from the Yarra Valley? This is a very happy way to end a business trip.
and knowing my hotel and large, warm comfortable bed is just a short staggering distance away allows me to indulge in one more for the road.
Saucy Onion stayed as a guest of The Franklin Hotel.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Black Gold - Truffle Hunting in Canberra

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 d├ęcor 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 -
Malamay restaurant  -