Cygnet Bay, hidden away in Western Australia’s Kimberley region, is the location for one of Australia’s rare culinary experiences. The words “rare” and “culinary” don’t usually suggest a low-budget food stop, but the cost of simply reaching this place makes the famous degustation menu at Tetsuya’s in Sydney look like a low-price option. From “the big smoke” – the relative metropolis of Broome (population: 15,000) – you have two choices.
You can take a four-wheel drive vehicle for two hours along the bumpy red-dirt trails that connect the townships and regions of the Kimberleys, an area three times the size of England, but with only 38,000 people.
Alternatively, you can fork out for a light aircraft, from which you can see the forests below, and notice how unspoiled the Kimberleys truly are.
Cygnet Bay Pearl Farm
The Cygnet Bay Pearl Farm is Australia’s oldest operating Pearl Farm, setting up shop in 1946. Fully aware of its isolation, it offers accommodation (in bright cottages or safari-style tents).
Its pub has long offered counter meals, like any remote pub worth its salt, but the café – opened in 2010 – is a relatively recent addition, bringing a much-needed extra espresso machine to the town.
The Cygnet Bay Bistro followed in 2013, boasting the culinary talents of former Nobu chef Benjamin Garratt.
An isolated pub on the secluded west coast seems like an unusual venue for someone of Ben’s prowess, but Cygnet Bay’s major industry ardently complements his skills.
The rare delicacy of pearl meat, a versatile seafood, provides many opportunities for his creative flair. Ben has introduced an eight-course degustation menu, but so far it is only available during peak season of the annual pearl harvest: 30 August to 20 September.
Our own meal is not so huge, but it is more than enough to keep us happy.
Meal with a view
We begin our meal not at the restaurant, but at the lookout point, with an ocean view that any fine restaurant would envy.
Like Spain’s legendary (and now-defunct) elBulli, which overlooked the Costa Brava, it is a secluded waterside locale to bring inspiration to a chef.
Firstly, we try a “Cleopatra”. According to legend, this was served by its namesake, the Queen of the Nile, in a bet with Mark Anthony that she could serve the more expensive feast.
She provided wine served in goblets, each with a cluster of pearls resting at the bottom, thereby winning the bet instantly.
Pearls are not such a rare commodity in Cygnet Bay, and these glowing but imperfect pearls – which we are welcome to take home, in the tiny velvet pouches provided by staff – will not help us with our retirement. Still, it is a good start.
Ideally it would be served in champagne, but this is a pleasing chardonnay from the Western Australian wine region of Pemberton, delicately called “Little Bitch” (as only an Australian wine can be named). The pinot noir is accompanied by blue bone sashimi, followed by raw pearl meat and sous bean pearl meat salad.
As the sun goes down (and the summery heat seems to vanish almost as quickly as the light, making us throw on our jumpers), we head from the pub, where Albert Wiggan, a local singer-songwriter, is finishing his folk-based set.
The locals start work early here, so late nights are not common, and the scheduled entertainment is over by six o’clock, replaced by a faint recording of Crowded House in the background.
There is a choice of appetisers: pearl tartare two ways with caviar and panzu soup, or smoked pearl with lemon yoghurt and a cured salmon roll. Both are a revelation, according to those who choose them.
Vegetarians, unable to enjoy the local delights of pearl meat in its various forms, are equally impressed by the grilled honey pear with black olive paint, goats curd and truffle oil.
The main course is a clear opportunity for the piece de resistance of this local delicacy: pearl meat with tiger prawns, scallops, barramundi and confit garlic, tossed through linguine with olive oil.
All very nice – a seafood and pasta feast – but the pearl meat no longer seems the focus of attention. That’s fine; by now, some of our group has chosen the Kimberley Grade 1 eye fillet steak, with no sign of seafood.
For vegetarians, beetroot schnitzel is served over a mushroom ricotta. Vegetarian “schnitzel” is nothing unusual (and nor is ricotta), but the beetroot – cooked to surprising tenderness – is an extra twist.
When available, the $110 degustation menu ($150 with matched wines) truly celebrates pearl meat: pearl sashimi, pearl tempura, pearl and champagne caviar, spanner crab and pearl tacos, grilled pearl and seaweed salad, pearl pasta, smoked salmon and pearl terrine. I have no details on dessert, but anyone able to eat more would be astounding.
By the time our main course arrives, it is dark, and I would rather be eating, so you are saved the obligatory, Facebook-style photos of my meals (though if I ever had a perfect excuse to show them to you, this would be the medium).
Suffice it to say that Cygnet Bay provides four-star dining at a much lower price. (By the time you have made it to Cygnet Bay, unless you happen to live in the Kimberleys, you will be open to any bargain that comes your way.)
Dessert is less adventurous – chocolate fondant with strawberries and ice cream, crème brulee with Chantilly cream – but no less enjoyable. Is this one of Australia’s greatest culinary experiences? I would have to try a few more before I can provide an educated answer.
Whatever the case, it is certainly worth considering. Cygnet Bay deserves a visit anyway – and while you are in the region, dinner at the pearl farm is practically essential.
Mark Juddery was a guest of Tourism WA
Discover Western Australia
Cygnet Bay Pearl Farm is located in Western Australia’s Kimberley region, on the Dampier Peninsula, 200 kilometres north of Broome. From Broome, visitors can self-drive in a four-wheel drive vehicle (approximately 2.5 hours). A number of guided tours by road also operate, with Kimberley Wild and Chomley Tours.
Another popular, and unique option is to visit the pearl farm by air, as part of an air safari on theKimberley Aerial Highway with local aviation operator Kimberley Aviation.
Specialising in Broome day trips and unique air safari’s, Kimberley Aviation operate a number of tours that include visits to Cygnet Bay Pearl Farm, where visitors can take guided visits of the farm, dine in the bistro or take one of Cygnet Bay’s boat tours to experience the ‘Giant Tides’ (the area is renowned for its 10 metre tides).
Visitors will also see the best of the Kimberley coastline with many of the air safari’s including the Horizontal Waterfalls (the world’s only), Buccaneer Archipelago, Cape Leveque and Beagle Bay. Given the expanse of, and the many changing landscapes in the Kimberley, seeing it by air is a ‘must do’ for many.
Qantas and Virgin Australia operate direct flights to Broome and when in-season, Qantas operates direct flights from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane.