How Pearl Meat Became Australia’s Newest Luxury Ingredient

Pearl meat is the ear-shaped adductor muscle in a pearl oyster. COURTESY OF CYGNET BAY

Pearl meat is the ear-shaped adductor muscle in a pearl oyster. COURTESY OF CYGNET BAY

Once humble divers’ fare, the meat of the pearl oyster now commands up to $200 per kilo.

“GIVE IT A GOOD CRACK, go on. Put some welly into it.” I twist the chock of wood into the oyster and the shell yawns open, revealing a fleshy mass of guts inside. The other members of the farm tour lean forward and coo as I reveal its contents: Hidden within the pulp is a bright, gleaming pearl. They watch as the marine biologist carefully removes it and buffs it clean, but I stare at what remains in my hands. I’m far more interested in this fleshy mess because I know just how valuable pearl meat really is.

It’s easy to see why the mother-of-pearl shell was once so coveted. To look at its iridescent nacre is like gazing into the eye of a swirling, glittering storm. For almost a century, more than 80,000 tons of the Pinctada maxima pearl shell were exported globally from Australia for use in the production of fashionable mother-of-pearl buttons. When the advent of cheaper, easier-to-produce plastic dimmed the appeal of the natural product, commercial focus shifted to the glamorous and lucrative pearls themselves. But now, more than 140 years since the first hard-hat divers walked these coralline sea beds, it’s the comparatively pedestrian offshoot of pearl meat that’s getting people excited.

Pearl meat—specifically the large, ear-shaped adductor muscle of the South Sea oyster—is already sought-after on the market in Hong Kong and Japan, where it can command up to $200 a kilogram. You’ll find it sprinkled throughout the menus
of some of Australia’s finest restaurants, too, from Bentley in Sydney, where it’s served doused in salted apple, buttermilk, and yuzu kosho, to Flower Drum in Melbourne, where it’s carefully cubed and plated alongside fresh spring onion and asparagus.

Pearl meat’s roots, however, can be traced back to the tiny coastal township of Broome in north Western Australia. In the mid-1800s, the discovery of rich pearl shell beds off 80 Mile Beach sparked a Gold Rush–style influx of settlers to Broome. Thousands of Japanese, Chinese, Malay, and Filipino divers descended on the tiny, red dust–covered township, along with prospectors from Britain, North America, and Europe, all seeking their fortune in this intriguing but perilous industry. They built jetties and set out in pearling luggers, primed to push their prows into mangroves, creeks, and channels in search of fresh pearl shell beds to plunder. Hotels popped up, serving pannikins of grog to multicultural crews seeking comfort from the rheumatic divers’ aches that plagued their joints.

In these early stages, pearling was a dangerous and desperately unregulated industry. The Indigenous population around Broome was cruelly displaced and many men, women, and even children were kidnapped by the early pearlers and forced to dive naked, or in “bare pelt.” As the industry developed, however, and the Pearl Shell Fishery Regulation Act was introduced in 1875, the fabric of the lugger crews shifted. Men from all over the world came to seek work on the luggers; most of them willingly, some for adventure, and usually as a response to the poverty of their home villages.

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