Plunging into the ocean in search of abalone is an extreme sport as well as one of the great foraging experiences. Navigating the cold water and prizing abalone from the ragged coastline are challenging feats that only the truly adventurous can fully embrace. Beyond that, the US recently issued numerous mandates that outline stringent diving protocol in response to overfishing and disease. Fishing is not permitted south of the San Francisco Bay but rather along the ledges and bluffs of Northern California’s coastline. With fishing license in hand, divers can harvest red abalone from April through November, excluding July, and are only allowed three a day and 24 per year.
For these divers, such obstacles quite literally
add to the sweet taste of their achievement
Abalone is an edible sea snail belonging to the Haliotis genus meaning “sea ear.” It is that highly prized deep-sea delicacy, sweet meat with a vibrant shell. The mollusk’s nomadic home is both durable and beautiful; its resilient brutish sheath belies a beautiful incandescent interior. ‘Nacre’, commonly known as Mother-of-Pearl, forms the thick inner layer of the shell, whose iridescence ranges from silvery-white to muted pink tones to deep red and even dark purple hues. Yet, the shell’s beautiful interior is mostly hidden by the mollusk’s major muscle, the source of its meat.
The majority of abalone species are found in cold waters off the coasts of New Zealand, South Africa, Australia, Western North America as well as Japan. In America, a 200-plus-mile stretch of coast in the Sonoma and Mendocino counties forms a prime destination for abalone divers.
Iso Rabins of ForageSF, a community-driven, collaborative food space, is a born forager. He’s scavenged for wild mushrooms and ramps, hunted wild boar but finds both a thrill and solace in diving for abalone. Be warned, abalone diving is not a leisure underwater activity. Far from casting your fishing line and seeing what bites, it’s an arduous coldwater pursuit accompanied with a list of necessary equipment and rules. The dive is exhausting, adrenaline inducing but ultimately rewarding.
Once suited up, the dive can begin. Abalone mainly resides under rocks, so start your search there. Once identifying a mollusk, use the gauge to make sure it measures at least seven inches long, but be careful since abalone is sensitive to touch. One clumsy move and it will clamp down making it nearly impossible to detach. A skilled abalone diver has a light touch. Insert the iron between the ‘foot’ of the muscle and the rock, pull out swiftly and pop the abalone from its surface. After returning to your boat, Robbins recommends measuring once more, since undersized abalone must be returned to exactly the same spot.
If your abalone meets the size requirement, then it’s time to tag. Fill out the Abalone Report Card and corresponding tag stating the exact month, day, time of catch and fishing location. Then, through the holes in the shell, attach your tag with a zip-tie and finally place in the cooler.
On a firm surface, tip the abalone on its long edge. Using the iron, slip the tool between meat and shell, push downward against the shell until it reaches the apex where the foot attaches. As if driving a nail, give the abalone a sharp “pop” with the palm of your hand in order to release it. With the foot unhinged, it should be easy to pull the entire muscle out with your hand. Now that the meat is exposed, make a 1/4 inch incision around the perimeter and peel away the tough outer edge and black, ruffly epipodium. But, don’t discard the epipodium because it makes delicious chowder or seafood stock. Now you are ready to slice, chop and tenderize the meat.
The snail’s delicate flavor, akin to clam or squid, is often used in ceviches, chowders or quick sautés. Tenderizing is key. In ceviches, the acid from the citrus tenderizes the meat while in sautés, pounding the thinly cut steaks weakens the tough muscle fibers. Some divers even put their abalone into a pillowcase and slam it on the ground, convinced that the shock relaxes the muscle instantaneously.
Abalone is intimidating both for the diver and the cook. It is rarely found on menus outside of Japan. Regulations and a lack of familiarity amongst chefs contribute to its near mythic wild food status.