A large, very tasty variety of sea snail, red abalone is being grown directly in or next to the ocean by two Bay Area aquaculture operations. (Susan Hathaway)
A quintessential California luxury ingredient, red abalone (haliotis rufescens) is beloved by eaters, top chefs, divers and, alas, the many poachers who have helped deplete the wild populations to such an extent that commercial harvesting has long been illegal. Fortunately, this largest, tastiest variety of the mollusk is being cultivated right here in the Bay Area, where live abalone or succulent, fresh steaks ready for a sauté pan are available if you know where to look.
Now considered akin to pricey, rare foodstuffs like beluga caviar, white truffles and true Kobe beef, abalone is not only delicious but the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch program names California farmed abalone a "best choice" because it's a healthy, sustainable pick. High-end chefs across the country love it not just because it's a luxury item in limited quantities but because it's subtle, rich, not-like-anything-else flavor -- sweet, buttery with a whisper of ocean -- inspires their creativity.
Fortunately, Bay Area chefs don't have to go far to get fresh abalone and neither do consumers because the only abalone farms on the continent are in California. Two coastal aquaculture operations in the region are selling abalone right out of their doors and also supply chefs, retailers, CSFs and some farmers' markets. Ranging from $20 to $96 per generous entree-sized portion (5 to 8 ounces) when bought directly from the source, California red abalone is a worthy purchase for home cooks looking for something special.
Locally, these gourmet gastropods are being cultivated under a commercial wharf in Monterey at the Monterey Abalone Company and in seawater-filled tanks virtually on the beach in Davenport near Santa Cruz at American Abalone Farms. The only other domestic aquaculture abalone operations selling to the public are located on the Central Coast in Cayucos, near Santa Barbara and on the island of Hawaii.
For seafood lovers, a trip to the coast to buy fresh abalone can be quite an enjoyable outing, particularly for those who don't want to wait to get their purchases home. "People want to come here and eat it here. That was kind of surprising," says Tom Ebert, owner of American Abalone Farms, located on a picturesque cove. A marine biologist whose father was an aquaculture pioneer, Ebert has encouraged this trend by selling other fresh-from-the-water local seafood like live oysters, clams, Dungeness crab, sea urchins, filleted wild salmon and other items at his farm, where he's in the process of building an official store and dining spot overlooking the ocean that will open in the fall.
In the commercial abalone business since 1989, Ebert admits abalone aquaculture isn't for the timid. "It's not an easy business," he explains, burdened with extensive regulations, multiple permit requirements, major location issues, significant investment prerequisites and natural challenges such as the effects of adverse weather when the abalone's main diet, local kelp, might not be plentiful.
"The only nice thing about winter storms is that it puts lots of bull kelp on the beach," Ebert says. Normally, he sends his crew out in a boat four times a week to harvest this abundant type of algae for his tasty mollusks to feed on. His employees lop off the tops of this fast-growing seaweed, which can generate a foot or more of new fronds daily, and fill up the boat dedicated to this task.
The many hurdles in his profession have whittled down the approximately 20 abalone farms that existed in the '90s to the few left today, he reports. But lately, business has been good as more people discover a scenic source for this treasured marine mollusk. "People come here and see live abalone crawling around in the tanks or get an abalone steak that was just processed yesterday," notes Ebert. If only that were true for some market-bought abs. "It could have come out of the ocean five weeks ago. Maybe it was frozen for the last six months. You just don’t know," he says.
The direct-to-the-public part of Ebert's business is now relatively small but he intends to increase it by adding Sunday to his current Saturday-only schedule starting in August. Given the crowds on sunny summer weekends who slurp down oysters and clams and have been cleaning out his other available, well-priced store offerings quickly, this is a wise strategy.
Approximately 50 miles down the coast, Monterey Abalone Company is also doing well. Unlike American Abalone, this sea-based aquaculture farm only sells live abalone and much of it within the immediate area. While Ebert's giant sea snails grow up in a series of tanks filled with continually freshened seawater from the adjacent Pacific, the abs at Monterey Abalone reside in cages under a municipal wharf, where the mollusks live on sheets of plastic in metal mesh enclosures that look sort of like large file drawers filled with snails. Frequently-harvested kelp and a little locally-cultured red algae are pushed into the cages and quickly consumed by the hungry critters.
Around for 25 years, Monterey Abalone is run by Art Seavey and Trevor Fay, who try to duplicate the environment of wild abalone as much as possible while preventing natural predators like crabs, sea stars, octopuses, sea otters and other species from gobbling up their abs. The strong current that runs through the bay carries away waste from their farm, which then feeds other ocean residents, according to Fay.
"We're about as much a farm-to-fork concept as it gets," he says, opining that his ocean-based mollusks are superior to tank-raised abalone -- and even the wild gastropods. "In my book, there are no bad abalone, but if we put our smallest ones alongside our largest ones or a wild one, I like our small ones the best; those that are four years old. The only way you can ruin abalone is if it's overcooked," Fay explains.
His farm and livestock are reached via a tall ladder under a trap-door in the middle of his tiny facility at the end of a pier built in 1926 where John Steinbeck once trod. Multiple wet planks laid between the pilings under the pier give access to 250 stacked cages where about 4,000 abalones silently eat and slowly grow in the cool bay waters. A system of ropes and pulleys is used to lift the cages out of the water frequently so more kelp can be stuffed in to feed the hungry abalone.
"We go through about four or five tons of fresh kelp every week," Fay reports. "We harvest by hand from the canopy near the surface. It's like cutting the grass out in the front yard; it's going to come right back." To keep his abs from drastic dieting during the periods when kelp is hard to find, his crew collects extra seaweed that's salted to preserve it so it's ready when the need arises.
As Seavey and Fay have performed research to fine-tune their operation, lucrative new sidelines have emerged. "The California red abalone gets its color (and name) from the shell, and in the wild, their shell would be a solid brick red color because they have access to red algae," notes Fay. Since red algae is quite hard to collect, Monterey Abalone began growing it nearby so they could add a small amount to the diet of their abalone to "enhance flavor and appearance," as Fay describes it.
After being contacted by Bay Area chef Daniel Patterson, who was looking for sources of algae for his high-end kitchens, Monterey Abalone added a new product to their business. Says Fay: "We began culturing different species of algae and collecting sustainable wild species. Chefs are food scientists that can do 1,000 things with these ingredients. Daniel is the one that kicked that off," he states. "All the algae in the ocean is edible; some is more palatable than others. It can be dried and used as seasoning, or eaten raw or used in soups or pickled. Bull kelp is just delicious," Fay notes, explaining that his algae supply is now being sold to consumers as well as chefs.
Like Tom Ebert, the crew at Monterey Abalone is plugged into the community of scientists, aquafarmers and fishermen whose life is the marine world. Thus Fay and team started selling other seafood obtained through their contacts. "We carry, seasonally, California spiny lobsters -- it's my favorite seafood in the world. We buy them from Santa Barbara. We bring up a load every other week of lobsters, Kellet's whelks, sea cucumbers and giant red urchins," Fay reports. Chefs from notable restaurants and sushi bars now have Monterey Abalone on speed dial to get their hands on these items but consumers can buy them, too.
When it comes to abalone, the company only sells live mollusks, so shucking and cleaning must be executed by the buyer. Novices get an illustrated sheet explaining the process but those with practice can, like Fay and Seavey, produce a glistening steak in about two minutes, with four steaks considered an entree portion. While cooking preparations are unlimited, many ab lovers take the simple route of pounding the mollusk lightly, dredging in flour, sautéing in butter very quickly and squeezing fresh lemon on the result. Delicioso!
For those who want all the work done by others, fresh California red abalone is sometimes on the menu at a variety of Bay Area restaurants for a pretty price, including:
San Francisco - Tadich Grill, Saison, Quince, Prospect, The Progress, North Beach Restaurant, Commonwealth, Lazy Bear, Cala, Californios, In Situ, Boulevard, Michael Mina, Farallon, Benu, Scoma's, Pacific Cafe
Peninsula & South Bay - The Sea by Alexander's Steakhouse, Palo Alto; Chez TJ, Mountain View; Manresa, Los Gatos; Nick's Next Door, Los Gatos; Plumed Horse, Saratoga; Le Papillon, San Jose; TGI Sushi, San Jose; Doni Don BBQ, Santa Clara
Wine Country - Meadowood, St. Helena; French Laundry, St. Helena; Sloage Resort, Calistoga; Single Thread, Healdsburg
Coast - Aubergine, Carmel; Anton & Michel's, Carmel; Pacific's Edge, Carmel; Sardine Factory, Monterey; Firefish Grill, Santa Cruz; Oswald, Soquel; Home, Soquel; Duarte's Tavern, Pescadero; Navio (Ritz-Carlton), Half Moon Bay
A renowned regional chef who's been a particular fan of local abalone is David Kinch of Michelin three-star Manresa in Los Gatos. The mollusk has appeared in some of his signature dishes such as Winter Tidal Pool, abalone porridge and braised abalone with panna cotta and abalone-dashi gelée. A sometime surfer, Kinch has said that farmed abalone is more tender than the wild variety -- an opinion shared by many other experts -- and he is so enamored of the flavorful sea snail that the cover of his cookbook, Manresa: An Edible Reflection, pictures a stylized abalone shell.
Bay Area chef Jarad Gallagher of Chez TJ in Mountain View keeps abalone on his menu and explains that "It's as sweet as corn so it pairs well with corn." He notes that the mollusk also goes great with rich ingredients like pork belly and bacon, with a particular affinity for truffles. His own unique take involves a quick sear on a Japanese grill burning binchō-tan charcoal, after which "It's so tender, you don't need to cut it with a knife," he says. Gallagher also uses the abalone's liver to create an umami-rich sauce for his preparations.
While local farmed abalone might win as a superior ingredient compared to wild abalone according to some, sport diving-- without scuba gear, which is illegal -- is still a passionate pastime for many people, despite the fact that this sometimes-perilous activity kills upward of seven divers annually. The shortened season, shrinking of the allowed catch -- now 12 per year -- and other restrictions don't dent the throngs who search for wild mollusks, primarily in the murky waters of Sonoma and Mendocino counties. Catching abalone anywhere south of the Golden Gate Bridge is prohibited.
Some well-heeled divers spend at least $675 to participate in Abalone Camp at the lovely Little River Inn on the Mendocino coast each June, which includes equipment, instruction, food, lodging, cooking demonstrations and more. The other big ab event is the World Championship Abalone Cook-Off & Festival in Fort Bragg in October, where would-be chefs feed eager eaters and compete for the best recipes for the tasty mollusk.
These events are attended by the rules-following abalone aficionados who adhere to the tight hunting restrictions imposed by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. These legit divers pry out about 250,000 wild red abalone from the Pacific annually -- which must be at least seven inches long -- but at least that many abalone are filched by poachers per year in a stolen catch with a street value that could be worth $25 million, say experts.
In huge demand particularly in the Asian community, by Asian markets and Asian restaurants, which treasure abalone not just for its taste but its supposed aphrodisiac qualities, the illegally obtained abs can easily fetch $100 per mollusk. Insiders like Tom Ebert report seeing large, clearly bootleg wild abalone for sale in Chinatown markets, a distressing sight. "Given my background, that just turns my stomach," he says. "To poach animals like that? That’s horrible. The poaching destroys everything."
Thieves in California have been caught not just with contraband red abalone but with other varieties from even more fragile populations. Of the 100-plus abalone species around the world, there are six present in our state in addition to the reds: blacks, whites, greens, pinks, pintos and threaded. None of these other species can legally be removed by anyone and many are dangerously endangered but to poachers, an abalone is viewed as a $100 bill lying on the sea floor. Ab rustlers use scuba gear and sneak to quiet, unmonitored corners of the long California coastline to steal their prizes, with plenty of buyers equally unbothered by the effect of these crimes on the wild habitats.
Like many other native flora and fauna decimated by careless humans, abalone were once so abundant that they could be gathered from a beach at low tide. Vintage photos from the early 1900s show massive piles of abalone shells as commercial operations geared up. After scuba technology arrived, a diver could collect 2,000 or more abalone daily so not surprisingly, red abalone populations plummeted during the '70s and '80s. The California government finally took action in the '90s after the collapse of the commercial abalone fishery.
Closing the commercial fishery and tightening regulations on sport diving in California helped the local ecology but demand worldwide for the delicious, pricey mollusk is undiminished. Fortunately, abalone farming emerged in the modern era to feed the craving and aquaculture operations exist in many coastal countries. In fact, American abalone production is far below that of other nations like Chile, Australia, South Africa and, particularly, Asian countries.
The big kahuna is China, which grows as much farmed abalone as all other nations combined according to Tom Ebert. "They don't export, really," he says. Nor are they concerned with environmental issues, apparently.
In abalone-mad nations like China and Japan, "farming" often means selecting a coastal bay, then hiring divers to remove or kill off all natural predators in that location before establishing abalone colonies, he says. "Anything else living in that bay can go out the window," reports Ebert. "If they come back, they’re killed. They'll put pipes straight across the beach, bring in bulldozers; they do whatever they have to do" to maximize abalone production.
Meanwhile, California's highly-regulated abalone aquaculture industry is barely expanding. But for those lucky enough to live in the Bay Area, a short drive or signing up for a CSF box can put this exquisite treat on dinner tables virtually anytime.