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The Abalone Farm, Cayucos, CA

Maritime Morsels

by Alain Gayot

The Abalone Farm in Cayucos, California

Fresh Abalone in California

OK, what's so great about abalone anyway? Considering the cost and labor involved in raising these marine snails and getting them ready-to-eat, their culinary value better be worth the price tag. And, while more than 50 species exist worldwide, few are of the best edible varieties that will find their way onto sushi bar menus and restaurant dining tables.

Abalone are at once underappreciated, overharvested, misunderstood and revered. Their taste and texture are beguiling and delicious if properly prepared from fresh meat, or even from the right kind of frozen steak. To top it off, once you've eaten the abalone meat, you're left with a beautiful shell that's the source of mother-of-pearl. They also produce pearls, but it's unlikely that your dinner abalone will be old enough to bear one to adorn your neck. Beyond their aesthetic and culinary contributions, abalone are valued for their numerous medicinal and mineral qualities in traditional and Eastern medicine—and prized as an aphrodisiac in Pacific Rim cultures.

Before you can truly appreciate abalone, venture beyond the velvety tenderness and succulent flavor to understand the diligence that landed them on your plate. A drastic decline in abalone populations forced the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) to impose a moratorium on all abalone fishing south of San Francisco Bay in 1997. The closure of commercial harvesting resulted in tighter supply and sky-high prices. In recent years, restrictions have become even more stringent. Now, no abalone may be taken, landed, or possessed from anywhere south of the center of the mouth of San Francisco Bay. Furthermore, new abalone fishing restrictions for areas in Northern California went into effect May 1, 2010. Licensed sport harvesting is allowed north of San Francisco Bay from April to June and August to November, but it is bound by restrictions on daily take (three), annual take (a cap of 24) and species (one, red abalone), collection methods (no SCUBA gear) and size (no less than seven inches in diameter). (Editor's note: For the latest California abalone regulations, consult the California Department of Fish & Wildlife.)

The loss of commercial wild harvesting along California's coast spawned a generation of shoreside farmers dedicated to keeping the market awash with abalone. True, abalone can be found across the globe, from Israel to Australia, but California's most common is Haliotis rufescens — the California Red Abalone — one of the most delicious of its species.

According to San Rafael-based FISHTECH, Inc. Abalone Consultants, there are currently 15 abalone farms on the coast of California. The oldest and largest in the United States is The Abalone Farm, Inc., located in the Central Coast beach town of Cayucos. Founded in 1968 by a group of abalone enthusiasts, the privately held Abalone Farm tightly controls the entire four-year production cycle of the California Red Abalone, which is marketed under the farm's Ocean Rose label.

The four-year cycle of abalone production begins with microscopic eggs that are carefully collected from select spawners. The egg-laden seawater is then transferred to a hatching tank where the diminutive abalone are raised in sterile laboratory conditions for several weeks. From the hatching tanks, it's into the nursery tanks and the most critical phase in their lives, when they are most susceptible to elevated nitrate levels. Seawater is pumped in at the rate of six million gallons per day, into tanks that hold more than four million abalone in various stages of growth, and is monitored around-the-clock. Their food when they are very young is homegrown red dulce seaweed, which also causes red rings to develop on the outside of their shells. As they get older, they eat mainly kelp.

After about a year, the abalone reach thumbnail-size and are moved to a basket area where they feast for the next three years on giant kelp harvested offshore. Once they have reached an average market size of 3.5 ounces, the abalone are purged for three to four days before being shipped to restaurants and consumers across the country and around the globe. You'll find live and raw abalone as the centerpiece of awabi sushi or, perhaps if you're visiting Tokyo, in the Edomae-style salted and steamed female abalone. Salted, fermented entrails are also enjoyed in the Japanese tottsuru. Elsewhere, dried abalone has the cachet of shark fin and bird nest, lending a distinct flavor and tenderness (and price tag) to Chinese soups.

Here in California, abalone receives a less exotic treatment and is best enjoyed after a dusting of cracker meal, flour and a quick sauté. Or, perhaps, you could dress it up a bit as abalone almondine or picatta-style.

The trick to cooking fresh abalone is to tenderize it several times on both sides with a broad knife and to sauté it for only a few seconds. Otherwise it will become tough and chewy — a disaster. Connoisseurs, chefs and nostalgic California transplants tend to stick with abalone steaks, which The Abalone Farm hand-tenderizes fifty times on each side before vacuum packing, freezing and shipping. Brad Buckley, The Abalone Farm's Sales Manager, notes that their small percentage of consumer orders mostly come from "West Coasters who have moved away."

The Abalone Farm exclusively grows California Red Abalone, which it supplies to the restaurant trade in live, fresh-packed and tenderized frozen steak form under their Ocean Rose label. For more information please call 877-367-1271, Monday through Friday 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. PST. The distributor also ships shells.


Abalone with Ginger Butter Sauce
(recipe courtesy of The Abalone Farm, Inc.)

Serves 2

1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 small shallots, minced
3 tablespoons dry white wine
3 tablespoons white wine vinegar
1 teaspoon heavy whipping cream
2 teaspoons ginger purée
6-8 abalone steaks
1/2 cup flour
Viola flowers or pansies for garnish (optional)

Melt 1 tablespoon of butter in a small saucepan over medium heat. Add the shallots and sauté until transparent. Add the wine and vinegar. Cook until the mixture is reduced to about 1 tablespoon and is syrupy. Whisk in the cream. Reduce the heat to low.

Set aside 2 tablespoons of the butter. Cut the remaining butter into pieces. Whisk in the butter, piece by piece, working on and off the heat as necessary to keep the butter from melting before it is emulsified. Whisk in the ginger purée. Remove from heat. Keep warm in a very low oven or in the top of a double boiler over simmering water.

Lightly pat steaks dry with a paper towel. Coat both sides of steaks with flour and shake off excess. Melt the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter in a medium size skillet over medium-high heat. Place enough abalone in the skillet to cover the bottom. Cook for 30-60 seconds on each side until golden brown.

Immediately transfer the abalone to a warm serving platter. Pour the ginger butter sauce over the abalone. Garnish with flowers. Serve immediately.




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