A while back, I arranged a fundraising dinner and some tours of local food producers as a fundraiser for a culinary association. We started the day at the Cayucos Abalone Farm with a personally guided tour conducted by Brad Buckley. Perched on small bluff overlooking the ocean, the farm produces almost 500,000 abalone a year. They culture only red abalone, under the brand name Ocean Rose.
Our first abalone epiphany was that abalone are not bi-valves like clams or oysters. They are snails. Gross, yet cool. Various strains of abalone also have their own particular flavor.
The water is changed daily, and dumped out through fine membranes to catch the microscopic babies which are then laid back in clean water. When they are the size of a fingernail, they are placed in the nursery—four foot wide tubs with small hoses oxygenating the water. The hoses are also used to inoculate the tubs with algae—plugs of green stuff are allowed to form in the hoses and then blown into the tub to make ‘seaweed slushies.’
When the abs are large enough to survive in the outdoor tanks, they are gently moved into baskets and placed in stair-stepped concrete basins. They are fed both ‘soft food’ seaweed slushies and kelp until they are old enough to eat solid food. Abalone grip surfaces so hard that moving them by hand is not only labor intensive but many abs would be injured as well. Accidentally tearing the skin or crushing their shells invites infection. So the farm places plastic sleeves in the tubs, which the baby abs like to cling to. The sleeves are removed and placed into a tank, then CO2 is bubbled through the water, anesthetizing the baby abs. They conk out and drop to the bottom of the tank where they are gently collected and moved to their new basins.
The farm has an ocean going vessel with a harvesting boom, and they lease rights to the offshore kelp beds from the State of California. Kelp grows at a rate of several inches per day, but the captain is careful to harvest no more than 4” a day. He also thins beds to allow more air and water flow through the kelp forest, encouraging new growth. Thinning is also necessary because if the heavy beds grow too massive, winter storms will rip them out by the roots, destroying the bed. So kelp harvesting is an agri-ocean art in itself. We were there on feeding day and saw huge 1-ton bales of wet kelp in rope bags being loaded onto an old flatbed truck. Workers chop the kelp with a shovel and place handfuls in each basin. The basins are small, maybe 4’ square, but the abs are voracious feeders. In extreme weather conditions in late fall or winter when kelp beds are torn up or boats can’t get out, the farm has a fall-back recipe for abalone nutrition they invented during the El Nino years. They mix a slurry of bran, seaweed and other nutrients into a dough, extrude it through a handcranked pasta machine and bake it in the oven. Snail spaghetti. I asked Brad if it was edible and he laughed and said that while bland, it was definitely edible and nutritious.
On our way to the nursery we walked by a trough filled with dulse, a frilly purplish seaweed used to feed the juveniles, and Brad offered us each a taste. It was salty of course, but also meaty. He said that when fried crispy it tastes like bacon. In addition to feeding abalone, they also sell it to restaurants for garnish and seaweed salad. We paused here to discuss various ways to prepare abalone, but Brad’s favorite is a simple tenderizing protocol of 25 whacks, then a quick sizzle on a high quality griddle, and served with butter and herbs.
It takes four years to grow an abalone to hors d’oeuvre size, and seven years to grow a medallion-sized steak. Abalone will grow almost an inch per year for 5-7 years, but only one quarter of an inch per year after that. God only knows how old the huge abs which used to be casually harvested by locals in the central coast really were.
Abalone farming is low-impact, especially as abalone have almost no excretions. They are also extremely sensitive and the farm sells young abalone to various firms and government agencies for use in water testing as “indicator” species.
We visited the freezing and packaging rooms, and Brad invited us to help ourselves to shells . . . buckets of gorgeous, cleaned and polished abalone shells with reddish exteriors. The shells are sold to local jewelry artisans who produce amulets and earrings from them. Several members scored a stack of shells for table servings.
Most of the abalone production is delivered fresh; about 30% is trimmed and frozen. Live abalone can survive in good health for 30 hours. The farm also exports to China and Japan. Couriers race to LAX with live abalone carefully packaged in seawater baggies and styrofoam, and they time their trips to arrive just in time to place the abs on an outgoing plane.
We finished our visit at the basins holding mature abalone. Melissa is holding a mature ab. They sink down onto your hand and grip hard. It’s kind of creepy. In the close up, you can see the foot and head curling around Mel’s fingers. Almost all of us held a pet abalone for a few minutes or fished in the basins for a loose ab.
Abalone grip so hard that unless you catch one by surprise, you are unable to pry it off the basin. Divers used to drown while collecting abalone . . . a diver would pry an abalone loose, stick his fingers under the shell to lift it and then in surprise and pain when the ab clamps down would drop his ab bar. At that point, there would be no way to get his hand loose and he would drown. (Tank diving is illegal when gathering abalone.) I thought these stories were urban legend, but Brad assured us the stories are true. It’s called “abalone’s revenge.”
You can order frozen and live abalone online, see more photos, and get recipes at The Abalone Farm.