Abalone – those algae-eating, sea dwelling creatures, which are so delectable to otters and so strange to look at as they creep along the ocean floor – are part of the phylum Mollusca. They share this group with squid, clams, scallops, sea slugs and octopuses. So it’s no wonder they’re so tasty.
This deliciousness, enjoyed by both sea otters and humans alike, has led to a steep decline in wild abalone, but new advancements in abalone farming. I got to witness the latter, first-hand, at Cayucos, California’s The Abalone Farm. There, hidden away behind a cattle farm, and sprawled out against the sea, Brad Buckley gave a walking tour of the various stages of an abalone’s life, from the beginnings as tiny egg-specks through tanks and tanks of years’ worth of growth. Lucky for me, (but less so for the abalone), I was able to conclude my tour with the final act in the lives of several of these snail-like creatures. I like to think they sacrificed themselves for science.
My first meal of The Abalone Farm’s chief product happened at Cass House, in Cayucos, California. It was served as an accompaniment to olive oil-poached halibut, aside mussels, and decorated with leek and fennel and a bay laurel beurre blanc. The texture was a medium firmness, but velvety. The flavor had been strongly influenced by the rich and herbaceous sauce, but retained some of the animal’s fresh seawater taste. Right then and there, bathed in the glow of having just eaten exquisite food, I became a believer.
The next day I went back to the stretch of seaside pale sand and dark warehouses that is The Abalone Farm, and Buckley fished through one of his adult abalone housing baskets, and pulled up a substantial creature approximately four inches in length and width, and about three inches across. He then quickly shucked it for me, deftly separating it from its life as he separated it from its shell. He showed me how a rigorous salt shower and subsequent scrubbing not only clean the abalone, it also speeds a sort of rigor mortus. Buckley then washed the stiff abalone in fresh water, sliced it into thin servings, and spritzed it with fresh lime.
This time, the abalone’s flavor was unadulterated, except for the burst of tart lime. It had the sort of soft snap familiar to anyone who’s eaten jellyfish. The flavor was subtle, clean and pleasant.
Flash forward to last month. A friend had organized a wine tasting/dinner party. The only rule was that everyone had to bring a dish, and every dish had to have a wine pairing. The rest was up to us.
Wanting to relive my Cayucos raw abalone experience, I chose to replicate exactly what I’d been shown.
…Then I got freaked out about having to prepare it for the first time at someone else’s house, for a room full of strangers, so I bought my live abalone from the Galleria market, in Koreatown, and they prepared it for me, sashimi-style. There was no salt scrub, but they cleaned and cut and served all six abalone beautifully. I paired the dish with a bottle of 2010 Domaine de la Pépière “Vieilles Vignes” Clos des Briords Muscadet Sèvre et Maine Sur Lie.
What I found with the abalone this time around was that different parts of the animal had a different taste. Some slices echoed that fresh seawater flavor from my first experience, others were much more pungently fishy. Other parts almost tasted like the clean umami of yellowtail sashimi. I served the dish with wasabi, soy sauce and lime slices, and let people choose their own adventure. My favorite combination was like the first one I’d tried – nothing but flesh and lime juice. While the soy sauce was good, it tended to overpower the clear, delicate flavor of the meat.
The wine pairing sang. The Domaine de la Pépière Muscadet is made from single-vineyard grapes that come from vines with an average age of about 80 years. This bottle was packed with mineral, with flashes of apricot, lemon and saline, which were perfect accents to the abalone. The focused acidity was enough to play against the baseness of the seafood, without competing with the presence of the fresh lime.
Like Buckley, Winemaker Marc Ollivier also seems to lean toward minimal embellishments when he’s presenting his work. Grapes are hand-harvested, fermentation is triggered by natural yeasts, and Ollivier employs a very light filtration. Clean, focused, pure.
Ready to try the wine, but don’t have abalone handy? This mineral-rich, chalky Muscadet is a natural (and traditional) pairing with oysters. Or, at around $16/bottle, it isn’t even unthinkable that you could try some pairing experimentations of your own…