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Jewels Of The Deep – Abalone

Jewels Of The Deep – Abalone

Abalone are sea snails that live in the cold, coastal waters of almost every continent on the planet and have a worldwide reputation as a delicacy. Now that they are also farmed, they are more affordable and accessible than ever.

Jewels Of The Deep – Abalone

Abalone’s reputation as an exotic live ingredient has long been marred by the belief that cooking it is beyond the abilities of the average cook. 

Although there is the odd Aussie who knows how to bash an abalone and toss it on the barbie, this jewel of the deep has traditionally been on the menu of upmarket restaurants (often Asian), along with the likes of other ‘difficult’ seafoods such as crayfish, pearl shell meat and squid. However, this subtle ancient ingredient is slowly making its way on to the dinner table at homes across Australia.

The meat of the rock-clinging mollusc resides inside an ear-shaped shell with pretty iridescent lining. When properly prepared and cooked, abalone tastes a little like a scallop.

The glamour of diving for wild abalone, by a diminishing group of licensed professionals and adventurous amateurs, has always been linked to remote locations the world over. 

Most abalone is found along the coasts of Australia, New Zealand, the west coast of North America, Africa and Japan. A black-shelled variety is found on the Chilean Pacific coast. Its reputation is often coupled with the dangers of unwanted predators such as Great White sharks and threats associated with twists in weather patterns and ocean swells. 

Although this rarefied group of wild abalone divers still exists, the market for seafood has changed markedly with the advent of abalone farming.

AN ANCIENT INDUSTRY

Portland, on the far south-west coast of Victoria, has a fishing industry that dates back to the heritage-listed Budj Bim landscape, the site of an ancient Indigenous aquaculture system in which fish and eels were farmed for thousands of years. 

Some of Australia’s first white settlers brought whaling to the area and the town gradually evolved to be the source of some of the best seafood in the world. 

The coastal site, with its world-class beaches, rocky cliffs and deep-sea port, has historically been engaged in trawling, squid jig fishing and cray pot fishing, along with its more recent expansion into recreational tuna angling. An elite abalone diving industry has long been part of the local catch, while the past decade has seen the addition of sustainably farmed abalone to the coastal city’s impressive list of seafood resources.

Wild abalone take 8-10 years to develop to minimum legal harvest size, however, farmed abalone take only 2-3 years to reach maturity. 

Australian company Yumbah Aquaculture has established farms along the isolated coast of the Great Southern Ocean at Bicheno in Tasmania, Kangaroo Island, Port Lincoln in South Australia and Narrawong in Portland. It is the largest producer of greenlip abalone in the world and it also farms the tiger variety. 

Farm manager Luke Thorpe says they feed the abalone with complex fish pellets and wash the crop tanks with a constant flow of fresh seawater. 

Although professional divers still brave the tides and swells to collect wild abalone, farms utilise a controlled environment to produce reliable stocks. This means smaller but more readily available abalone to complement the larger wild varieties for local and export markets.

Wild abalone is highly prized by the Asian and American markets and, historically, prices vary according to size, type, age and seasonal fluctuations. 

Because it is slow growing, abalone is one of the most expensive of any seafood worldwide. However, shifting production to farms has helped bring the price down. Today, more than 95 per cent of abalone comes from aquaculture. China is the world’s largest producer and consumer of abalone.

Portland cooking enthusiast Jen Risk was inspired to publish her book, Abalone Cooking: A Simple Guide, last year after finding inspiration in the increased availability of abalone. 

Risk provides insight into the technical preparation, cooking methods and recipe possibilities of this rich ingredient. She breaks down some of the myths and difficulties around the quirky mollusc, offering practical guides to tasks such as shucking, trimming and slicing the meat, as well as tasty ideas for the offcuts, in addition to her mouth-watering recipes. Although Risk’s focus is on using sustainably farmed abalone, her instructions can be adjusted for wild caught as well. 

The book is divided into sections that comprise different cooking methods such as parboiling, sous-vide (slow-cooking in a water bath using vacuum-sealed bags), steaming, barbecuing, grilling, poaching, baking and frying. 

There are a wide range of cultural influences, with everything from an abalone stir-fry to schnitzel, curry and a seared abalone carpaccio created by fellow abalone aficionado, Alex Wood. She finishes with tips for making stock, sausages, crackers and chowder.

Risk’s love of abalone has seen her hosting events at Hobart’s Wooden Boat Festival and tastings at AFL Country Week at the MCG, but she’s just as happy cooking it for her family and friends. She says it’s great to have a frozen supply of abalone at home that can easily be transformed into an exotic meal and that the intention behind her book is to show that cooking the mollusc is not as difficult as many people believe.

HOW TO PREPARE ABALONE

If you are using frozen abalone, thaw it slowly, ideally in the refrigerator – not in the microwave or in hot water. Before shucking, wash it thoroughly in cold, fresh water.  Place the front of a spoon against the muscle attached to the inside top of the shell and sever the muscle by moving the spoon inwards, then remove the abalone meat from the shell by hand. 

Once you’ve pried the abalone from its shell, you can scrub the shell clean and air-dry it for decorative use if you like. The next step is removing the liver and sand bag from the abalone. Do this by hand and wash the flesh in cold water. The next step is to trim off the hard parts (the ‘beak’) of the mouth a the abalone. 

Now you need to trim off the frills, also known as the epipodium, from the abalone. This helps the muscle relax and become more supple, and the presentation is better. Once trimmed, remove the excess moisture off the abalone with paper towels. Now the trimmed flesh can be sliced or minced and used in a number of different preparations.

When slicing, aim to cut the abalone flesh lengthwise into 2-5mm slices. Pound the flesh with a meat tenderiser until it is pliable,
or it can be parboiled. It can then be breaded and pan-fried, marinated, slow-cooked or minced. The meat is firm with a  slightly crunchy texture, similar to a scallop,with a flavour that is subtly briny and a little bit sweet.

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