By JANET VOLKMAN
Their first trip to the sparsely populated tropical northwest coast of Australia would have put most people off. But Ella Gafter and her daughter, Talila, are nothing if not intrepid. Elegantly dressed and coiffed as always, this indomitable pair went out into the desert heat looking for crocodiles. But there was nothing elegant about what happened next.
Ella and Talila were already lost when their Jeep® sank into quicksand. They sat there, under the relentless sun. In time they waved down a rare passing vehicle. Luck was with them – the driver was from a pearl farm and was able to send Ella and Talila on their way – to the offices of Nicholas Paspaley, the biggest pearl producer in Australia. They arrived, looking cool and collected for their meeting despite their "adventure."
Ella and Talila, principals of Ellagem, where Ella is ths artist and Talila handles the business side, have maintained a close working relationship and friendship with Mr. Paspaley of the Paspaley Pearling Company in Darwin. Pearls are one of their passions. Every year they travel to the area where Paspaley pearl farms range down the remote coast to hand-select South Sea pearls for their one-of-a-kind jewelry. There, Ella indulges in her other passion – gourmet cooking.
"Nick is the best pearl meat cook in the world,"" says Talila generously. For Ella is no slouch in the kitchen herself: Cooking is deeply embedded in her Italian blood. As the friendship progressed between Ella and Mr. Paspaley, their competitive natures took over, and they challenged pinctada maxima (siIver-lipped) oyster to its shell. Unique to this part of the world, this is the oyster that produces the luscious and luxurious South Sea pearl.
When the oyster has passed its productive years, the steak can be scraped out and eaten. It is a very rare delicacy, never sold on the open market, where it would go for an estimated $500 per pound, or more. Only royalty and other notables (and recently a few area restaurant-goers) have tasted it, as well as the luckv young men who come in fifteen-day shifts to the farms to dive for pearls.
Mr. Paspaley, whose father started the pearl business here when it was mainly a mother-of-pearl outfit (mother-of-pearl was used extensively for buttons), has had the time to practice preparing pearl meat in many ways. His favorite is to fry it after breading with a light batter made with egg and rice flour. The goal is to not overpower the taste of the meat, which is light, sweet, and quite delicate. The flavor is not easy ro describe, says Ella, because enjoying it is more about mouth feel than anything else. “It stays in the mouth like a fine wine.” she says. When pressed to elaborate, she admits it could be compared to lobster, but is Iess chewy and never fishy.
Ella, having spent most of her life in Rome, has hecome legendary in this remote Down Under outpost for her pearl meat and pasta concoction. The Gafter women admit that at first it was sacrilege to even think of combining the delicious but fragile pearl meat with anything, much less fresh tomato sauce. But Ella claims to have cooking in her DNA, and Pasta and Pearl Meat now has many adherents who agree.
So many, in fact, that two years ago Nick Paspaley invited Ella and Talila to make dinner at a neighboring farm he was thinking of purchasing. “Neighboring” in this part of the world meant a private plane, seaplane, and dinghy ride away.
When they arrived at the farm, Ella naturally headed for the kitchen. What a disaster! This was a kitchen that hadn’t been used for years, where roaches ran wild, pizza from the early eighties was in the freezer, powdered foods spilled out all over the counters and floor. She gasped, shielding her white linen suit – Cook here!
“No problem,” said Mr. Paspaley, another “neighbor” had a great pantry. They went “next door,” also by seaplane. Miraculously, they found pearl meat in the freezer and a full larder. Gracefully and graciously, as is her style, Ella went to work. An hour later, Pearl Meat and Pasta was served to thirty hungry people. She also makes accompaniments: a mean jungle juice and a yummy dessert crostata made with marmelade and butter from Tasmania.
Ellagem’s jewelry is as exotic and rare and uncommon as pearl meat. And like her recipes, Ella’s beautiful fine jewelry is all her own and one-of-a-kind. Pieces feature one or more South Sea pearls from Mr. Paspaley’s farms, where oysters are treated with loving care reflected in the pearls’ distinctive lustre. (Mr. Paspaley was the first of the northwest Australian pearl farmers to understand the correlation between gentle care of oysters and the quality of the pearls they produce. When an oyster is brought out of the water for more than two minutes, or even moves from one place on the sea floor to another, it is traumatized and may become more susceptible to disease.)
The pearls Ella selects are chosen for their rich, creamy white color and for their superb lustre. Ella, a true artisan, designs her jewelry around these pearls. “The major design challenge is that pearls are so alive,” she says. “The pin will be born organically around the pearl.” She adds to the pearl a bit of her own Italian fire in the form of lively colored gemstones and dazzling diamonds in playful, whimsical designs depicting floral motifs or animals and sea creatures.
The stunning pieces are made in Naples, where Ella’s own carefully trained workers apply the sense of art and craft they’ve inherited from generations of ltalian goldsmiths. The finished jewelry is exuberant and passionate, which is, of course, the wav Ella Gafter does everything.
Sunday Life Magazine - Australia
Pinctada Maxima Shell
Nick Paspaley and Talila in New York
With Mr. Paspaley's nephews Michael and Pete in Hong Kong
Selecting Golden Pearls in Japan
Ella is happy with what she finds