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Wednesday, Aug 7 1996
Holy Abalone
Of the local culinary delicacies, none is more esteemed -- or expensive -- than abalone, the kelp-loving mollusk that to many people defines Bay Area seafood. But abalone has been so overfished that commercial harvesting of California red abalone (the only type still so fished) is forbidden north of the city, and prices have soared correspondingly. Wild abalone now runs about $15 a pound wholesale, according to Marc Vracio, owner of A Perfect Ocean on Lombard.

At least three-quarters of the abalone Vracio sells is the wild variety, but it turns out that the red abalone, because it grows the fastest of all local varieties, is farmable. Vracio says it's currently being raised at 18 or 19 facilities up and down the coast. In one method, the abalone are spawned in onshore tanks, then moved to offshore rafting cages until they're harvested at 3 years of age. But some abalone spend their entire lives in onshore tanks, happily munching on the kelp that's their principal source of food.

Either way, farmed abalone is easier to deal with than its wild cousin. For one thing, it's harvested young, so it's far more tender. Because of government regulations, wild abalone are typically between 10 and 16 years old when they're taken, Vracio says, and they're more likely to turn tough when cooked.

"If you overcook abalone, it turns into shoe leather," he says. "The farm-raised kind is so tender that you only have to saute it for about 30 seconds on each side in a mixture of oil and butter."

Farmed abalone also doesn't need to be trimmed of an extensive set of tentacles, Vracio says. (By means of those tentacles, the shellfish cling to the kelp vines they eat. Unlike clams and oysters, abalone are not filter feeders, and they're not subject to red tides.)

Abalone is one of those fine foodstuffs that show to best advantage in simple preparations.

"They really don't need much seasoning," Vracio says. "Some people like to bread them before sauteing, but then their natural taste starts to get lost. I like to serve them with rice or potatoes -- things that won't take away from the flavor of the abalone."

Abalone from tank farms may not have quite the romance of abalone taken off a ruggedly scenic coastline, but Vracio says that "restaurants are working toward favoring farmed over wild because the quality and supply are more consistent." And the Japanese are getting into the act, snapping up (in addition to crabs and shark fins) large quantities of California farmed abalone. That might help explain why the wholesale price of farmed abalone jumped from $13 a pound three years ago to more than $17 a pound today. Don't look for any sales at the supermarket.

By Paul Reidinger

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Paul Reidinger


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