Wednesday, March 31, 2010

On The Abalone Farm: Partaking of the Ocean Rose

Up and over a short but steep stretch of hard-packed dirt road, just beyond the hills separating California Pacific Coast Highway 1 from the Pacific itself, somewhere along the relatively untouched stretch of coastline between San Simeon and Cayucos, lies a most unusual farm. There are no grazing animals in sight, no furrowed fields of lettuces or crucifers, no orchards or berry bushes. There's nary a vine, for here we're too close to the ocean for the practice of viticulture. And no, (I know what you're thinking), there's not even a camo-netting system hiding a grove of what might just be California's largest cash crop from the prying eyes of fly-by DEA agents.

What you would find, were you to be an accidental trespasser on the site, are a handful of relatively nondescript, weathered outbuildings along with what might easily be mistaken for some sort of water processing plant. A pumping station sits at the highest point on the property, below which lies, in a stair-stepped line to the sea, a series of concrete tanks, water bubbling from one to the next in serial fashion.

Remember now, this is a farm. What's passing through those tanks is nothing other than unfiltered sea water, pumped directly from the Pacific and fed by gravity from one level of the farm to the next. It's all for the sake of the crop being raised in that poured concrete network: abalone, red abalone to be exact, what they call the "Ocean Rose" here on the farm. And in spite of relatively humble appearances, this happens to be the largest abalone farm, albeit one of only a few, in the United States, lending credence to its simple name: The Abalone Farm.

Brad Buckley, Sales Manager at The Abalone Farm, led our group on an informative, hands-on tour of the farm. You'll see plenty of his hand(s) in the pictures to come.... Brad's a bit of a jack-of-all-trades around the farm, overseeing production and distribution in addition to sales and marketing.

The concept of sustainability, in many and sundry of its nebulous manifestations, was bandied about throughout our trip. But one thing that struck me over the course of our tour was the thoroughly self-sustaining nature of the operations at the abalone farm. It's occasionally necessary to head to Bodega Bay in Northern California to dive for and harvest wild abalone for breeding stock, as it's currently illegal to harvest wild abalone along the Central Coast. Otherwise, just about all of the needs of the farm, from breeding to feeding, rearing to harvesting, are handled right on the farm or provided for from the farm's immediate surroundings.

The farming cycle begins with breeding stock selection: a combination of the best he and she studs from among the specimens on the farm along with wild abalone, brought in from up north to foster genetic strength and biodiversity. Abalone are broadcast spawners, meaning the females release their eggs, males release their sperm and fertilization ensues in the water. For control purposes, the sexes are kept separate in the farm's spawning tanks — which look very much like smaller, shallower versions of the tanks shown below — and the eggs and sperm are then introduced. This is the only point in the process at which the sea water is filtered in any way; the filtration being necessary at this stage to reduce the incidence of bacteria-induced mortality during the abalone's larval stage of growth. Spawning is conducted, as it would occur in the wild, at full moon in the lunar cycle.

What came first: the abalone or the egg? I should make it clear that I have no pretensions to being particularly well versed in marine biology. The descriptions that you'll find here are simply based on my understanding of what we learned during our visit. Please feel free to elucidate if you see fit....

Once larval stage is reached and the brood stabilized, the crop is moved to the hatchery, a simple structure housing row upon row of circular, open-top tanks (shown above). The orange/brown matter in the tanks is the mixture of algae and seaweed upon which the infant abalone feed. At this point in their development, the abalone themselves are not much larger than coarse grinds of black pepper. The strip around the top of the tanks is AstroTurf, which, after some experimenting with various materials, proved to be the ideal texture to deter the little critters from crawling up and out of their tanks.

Sheba the guard cat, who apparently doesn't enjoy eating abalone nearly so much as she does keeping an eye on them.

Once the infant abalone reach a certain size and vitality, it's outside they go.... The juvenile abalone cling to sections of PVC tubing, which serve primarily to increase the surface area within the submerged baskets.

As the abalone approach adolescence, the PVC pipes are removed and the creatures are free to roam within the confines of their submerged baskets.

Finally, as adulthood approaches, the baskets are removed, giving the abalone free range within their respective concrete tanks.

As the abalone grows, its shell grows with it. The holes along the top of the shell allow oxygen to flow through to the animal's respiratory organs. With age, the oldest holes will close while new ones grow. The notch at the front of the shell in the picture above, just over the abalone's head, is the beginning of what will eventually become a new hole.

Abalone, by the way, are one-shelled, one-footed marine snails. Though they fall within the phylum of mollusks, they are generally not considered to be shellfish. It takes four-to-six years for a farmed abalone to reach harvestable size. During that time frame, the abalone are constantly sorted for size, as some will mature and grow more rapidly than others, shutting out their smaller counterparts if left together.

At any given time, there are approximately five million abalone on the farm, with an annual harvest of about one million. Those five million snails go through a combined average of 60 tons of kelp, dulse and algae per week.

Dulse (above) is grown in seawater tanks on the farm. It makes for a pretty tasty snack if I do say so myself.... Algae forms naturally in the abalones' tanks. And kelp, the primary constituent of the abalone's diet, is harvested (if I understood correctly) just off shore; a very sustainable model given that the kelp grows back just as quickly as the abalone eat it.

When The Abalone Farm was established in the 1960s, the majority of its produce went to export markets in China and Japan. In more recent decades, however, the US has become the farm's largest single market, no doubt helped along by the explosion in popularity of sushi and other styles of Asian cuisine that most often utilize the abalone.

When dining on the farm, it's tough to divorce one's association between food and from whence that food comes.... Most abalone is sold in two forms: whole, live abalone and abalone "steaks."

Fresh abalone is crunchy and just a little flexible and fleshy to the bite. If you've been served rubbery abalone at a sushi restaurant, it had either been frozen or kept around for too long. It doesn't get much fresher than this....

For his sashimi preparation, Brad simply shucked the abalone from its shell, trimmed off the fringe and the majority of its black pigmentation, gave it a quick polish to remove a little more of that pigmentation, and then sliced away. Just a spritz of fresh lemon juice can be used for flavor, never enough to acid-cook the flesh.

The steaks are simply whole, fresh abalone that have been cleaned, pounded/tenderized into flat portions and then vacuum packed for shipping. They're available in two styles: polished and rustic. After first sprinkling them with salt to draw out moisture, Brad grilled up a few of each for us to taste, adding nothing else other than a light brushing of olive oil.

The polished abalone steaks, above, have literally been polished — lightly buffed on a grinding wheel to remove the black, pigmented portion of the flesh. They're mild in flavor, very tender, and reminiscent of fresh grilled squid but with a slightly richer and more mineral flavor.
The "rustic" steaks, pictured above, are left with some of their pigmentation still in place, rendering a more pungent, full-flavored result. I definitely preferred this version. Texturally, the rustic steaks were no different from the polished, but their flavor was more intensely of the sea. Think of the brininess of an oyster crossed with the earthy, umami flavor of squid ink and you'll be on the right track.

The Abalone Farm is not regularly open to visitors but private tours can sometimes be arranged upon request. You may find it worth the effort to contact them (especially if you've read this far...) when next you plan to be in the area.

The Abalone Farm, Inc.
PO Box 136
Cayucos, CA 93430


Brooklynguy said...

Wow - so interesting, and great pictures too.

Patty said...

Wow I had no idea raising abalones was so hard!

TWG said...

No wine match?

David McDuff said...

Glad you dug it, Neil.

No wine on this visit, Tom. But just in case you're planning to order a shipment... a nice minerally example of Blanc de Blancs Champagne with the sashimi; Muscadet, Fino or Manzanilla with the polished steaks; and rosé (think something delicate like Lopez de Heredia, or something burlier and local like the Paso Robles rosé we tasted with Stephan Asseo at L'Aventure) with the rustic steaks.

Richard Auffrey said...

This was a fascinating tour and you did a great job of conveying the intracacies of the operation. I never imagined how complex it would be to raise abalone.

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