We humans have strange and varied tastes and the rarer the ingredient, the more desirable it becomes. Abalone is one such example. An indication of the market for abalone is easily gleaned from the Abagold website (one of the largest producers of abalone) where with one click, the copy on the website turns into Chinese for easier reading by their Asian markets. The Chinese have a different relationship to food than we do and abalone is considered to be one of the five power foods that must be eaten at minimum once a year. To them it is closer to a medicine than a food and they believe it gives you life force (not aphrodisiac power as often quoted). If you want to impress Chinese speaking guests, you must serve abalone. But it is rarely eaten in South Africa; as a nation we’d rather have chicken than sea snail and at R250-350 per kilo, it can’t compete with KFC!
Abagold have a production capacity of two hundred and seventy five tons per year and the entire South African abalone farming industry produces just under a thousand tons a year, but this seems paltry compared to the estimated 2000-3000 tons taken out of the sea by poachers. There were warnings ten years ago about unsustainability – the wild source is resilient, but because of depletion of perlemoen colonies there is not a big enough congregation of males and females in close proximity for the eggs that are released into the sea to be fertilised.
In the ideal conditions of Abagold’s brood farm, hatchlings spend seven months growing to thumbnail size and the next five years reaching optimum size, at which time they are dried or canned for export. Unlike humans, the older they get the more fertile they are, ending their natural life in the wild at 40 or 50 years old. While you may not think a large mollusc is that interesting, the 45 minute tour of the Abagold facility every day at 11am, is really rather fascinating.
Should you get the chance to eat perlemoen (the local name for abalone) remember it is supposed to be chewy (you have to chew it to get the flavour) but not tough. The preparation to ensure that abalone meat can be cut with a butter knife remains a secret that Abagold will not tell.