Friday, May 25, 2007

Abalone

A couple of years ago I was hiking with a big group of friends along the coast in Northern California, up near Fort Ross. Stunningly beautiful place, with mountains adjacent to the ocean, the best of both worlds. Normally when hiking I like to rough it, packing eveything necessary in, at least 5 miles or so, and then cooking with as little equipment as possible. Ideally it would be foraging or hunting, coming in with nothing but a knife and a match, but I've never gone that far. Mind you, the goal of hiking has always been primarily gastronomic for me. The trek rouses up a fierce appetite, the smell of smoke permeates everything as you cook over a wood fire. But this time was different. It was "car camping" and there were lots of little kids, tents everywhere and the cars a few feet away. So everyone pretty much brought everything they could ever possibly need, including the kitchen sink. In defiance, for one night's meal I dug a pit and lined it with little banana leaf parcels of seafood and vegetables, a vague simulacrum of a real campfire cooking experience, without tools.

Somehow the conversation got around to abalone one night. I had never actually tasted it before, as they're illegal to sell now in California, and I think divers are only allowed to take two a day, or something like that. An imported can never appealed to me. So it was an experience I expected to do without. I must have been blabbing on about everything I'd ever heard about abalone. Lo and behold up walk a young couple, who had just returned from diving, hey we have some abalone, would you like it? I guess they only wanted the shell, and had no interest in eating it. Mind you, this was not like saying, would you care for a clam, or will you take a look at this limpet I just found? This was about 10 or 12 inches in diameter. A huge hunk of flesh, several pounds-worth. I gasped for air and graciously accepted it, thanking them profusely, and fell over myself in my good fortune. My heart was racing.

I knew you couldn't just pop it in a pan, so I broke out my trusty laguiole, sliced it thinly, pounded it with the only sturdy utensil at hand, which happened to be a hammer. Then dipped the slices in egg wash and coasted with crushed saltines. These were fried in my cast iron pan in butter. Frankly amazing, everyone acceded. But not as amazing as just briefly passed over the fire in butter. Meltingly subtle, slightly chewy, redolent of the ocean, but nothing like any other shellfish I'd ever eaten. This was magical. Now I know what all the fuss was about.

I've never tasted abalone again. I wonder if it was the freshness, the mountain air, the company, or the thrill of singular experiences. Part of me really never wants to try it again, how could it possibly be that good another time?

2 comments:

Tammois said...

It will indeed be as good the next time, Ken. And the next, ad infinitum. My husband gathers abalone (here on the Victorian coast of Australia we can take 5 per day, down from 10 before last year) nearly every time we go down the coast. We never actually pound ours, just slice them as thinly as possible. Then I make a sort of nam phrik (fish sauce, soy, garlic, ginger, chili, lime juice & pinch of sugar) and we stir fry in a wok on a high heat for about 2-3 minutes. They're unbelievably delicious every single time. Sometimes he freezes some for me if I'm staying down to work on my thesis (I'm working on my PhD at the Uni of Melbourne, provisionally entitled "Tasting Terroir: Multicultural Food and National Identity), and I thaw and cook it up for quick comfort food each evening. Beats vegemite toast! Thanks for your blog - it's very pleasant distraction, ahem, research.

Ken Albala said...

Thanks Tammois, next time I'm in Melbourne I intend to pop in and join you for some abalone so you can prove me wrong. Deal? And of course this is all research! Best of luck on your PhD too. I've actually spoken about Terroir in a conference session with Rachel Laudan. Do contact me off blog about this. Ken