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Shimmering comeback

Innovative fisheries are reviving California's treasure, the incomparable abalone.

June 16, 2004|Russ Parsons | Times Staff Writer

Cayucos — Cayucos

It is an odd spot for a miracle, this motley collection of beachfront shacks and sea-scoured concrete tanks clinging to a sunburned bluff above the Pacific just north of Morro Bay. But it's hard to describe what is happening at the Abalone Farm any other way. Here, the abalone -- so rare in the wild that it is illegal to catch it commercially -- is making a comeback.

Consider this: Abalone is so tightly protected that it can legally be caught only by sport fishermen north of San Francisco Bay and only if the fishermen are free-diving, without breathing equipment. Anything else is illegal. And yet, abalone appears on the Monterey Bay Aquarium's list of "best choice" seafood. But only in its farmed form, of course, and that quite likely means that it comes from the Abalone Farm, which accounts for more than half of the fresh abalone eaten in this country.

Abalone was once considered a California icon, as much a part of summer as surfboards, cut-off jeans and bonfires at the beach. It was so common it could be collected from rocks exposed by low tides.

It is a marine gastropod (family haliotidae, genus Haliotis), a snail that lives in the sea. In fact, if you try to imagine a very big, very stylish snail sporting a streamlined shell that looks something like a '50s or '60s bathtub Porsche, you'll be very close.

The part of the abalone that we eat is its large muscular foot. Raw, it is very tough. When eaten as sushi, this translates as a pleasing crunchiness. If it is to be cooked, abalone is almost always tenderized by pounding, just as you would flatten a scaloppine of veal or a chicken-fried steak. It must also be heated very quickly or it becomes rubbery.

Properly prepared, abalone has a texture that is nearly buttery. The flavor is beguiling, like a combination of a very sweet, very tender calamari steak with the lingering, subtle shellfish flavor we associate with oyster or crab.

It is no wonder people went so crazy for it. Still, it is a shame. In a relatively short span, abalone went from being almost as common as mussels to so overfished that only last-minute legislation and the intervention of advanced aquaculture could save it from oblivion.

But if you equate modern miracles with high technology, you'll be disappointed in the Abalone Farm.

The shellfish are kept in a series of plastic buckets and tanks that are housed in what seem like a series of rickety boathouses and barracks. When the abalones are big enough, they graduate to the concrete tanks, roughly 4 feet square and divided by plywood walls.

Because abalones are relatively clean and well-behaved creatures, their aquaculture is regarded as a model of ecological sustainability. They live in seawater that is pumped from the bay below and are fed kelp that is harvested from the forest just beyond where the surf breaks, on dark red dulse seaweed that is grown at the farm and on naturally occurring algae that grow in the tanks.

"We're very low-tech," says Brad Buckley, the farm's sales manager. "We've learned we have to work with the abalone on its own natural level. There are no glitzy shortcuts."

The abalones don't seem to mind. At any given time, the farm houses between 4 million and 6 million of them. They sell a million a year; most goes to sushi bars in Southern California and the Bay Area, but about a third is shipped to Asia.

As rustic as the setting might be, the Abalone Farm is thoroughly modern when it comes to getting its product out. Almost every day an overnight delivery truck pulls up the dirt road to pick up a load of abalone. Orders placed before noon by phone or on the website can be delivered anywhere in the country the next day.

$100 a pound, uncooked

A couple of times a week, another truck comes in and picks up big loads to be delivered to wholesalers, like Chol Pak's Pacific Fresh Fish Co. downtown, which sells to Southern California sushi bars and markets such as Assi Market in Koreatown. Because of its scarcity, fresh abalone is extravagantly expensive. Ready-to-cook steaks from the Abalone Farm run about $100 a pound (enough for six to eight moderate servings).

Pak says Koreans like abalone as sashimi and also as an ingredient in rice porridge called jeonbok-juk. Another steady customer is the classic Pico Rivera steakhouse Dal Rae, which serves them either "almodine" or served with caper sauce or lemon butter (a $52 entree).

Although the flavor is the same, old-timers who remember wild abalone as big as dinner plates are not likely to be impressed by the size of these farmed specimens. Most are harvested when they're about as big as your palm. A few super-achievers are as big as your entire hand. The abalones range in weight from 3 1/2 ounces to 8 ounces, which will yield 1- to 2-ounce steaks.

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