Abalone is a sought after delicacy that is linked to poaching, black-market trading and drugs. The negative association does not make it less desirable. Perlemoen, as South Africans know this sea snail, is becoming more popular as its supply diminishes. It favours the cold water between Hangklip and Agulhas and thrives in the dynamic ecosystems of kelp forests.
Although the Chinese produce 100 times more abalone than South Africa it is in the Far East that this delicacy is so desired that it demands exorbitant prices and drives a lucrative underground trade. Part of the popularity in the eastern markets is owed to the custom of equating food with medicine – eating not just for enjoyment but also for health benefits. Abalone, shark fin and sea cucumbers are considered fit for an emperor – status ingredients. In every day China abalone is served as a sign of respect for your guest. It is typically something that will be presented to a potential mother-in-law to acquire goodwill.
Hermanus chef and restaurateur, Rudolf van der Berg, has been waiting for years to cook with the delicacy that Hermanus is so famous for. Participating in Hermanus FynArts Rudolf had an opportunity to present abalone to the residents of the Overberg at Burgundy Restaurant. He prepared a starter of poached abalone in an Asian sauce with stem broccoli and caviar. This was followed by abalone risotto with baby abalone pearls, shiitake and crispy sea grass – a recipe shared by Ataraxia winemaker Kevin Grant. The showstopper was the crème brulee with caramelised abalone Carpaccio.
Pairing abalone with alcohol is dictated by preparation methods. Sake is an obvious complement in the East Asia where abalone is so popular. Rudolf picked Ataraxia’s Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir as well as a Noble Late Harvest from Beaumont, Bot River. When abalone is simmered in soy sauce a balanced, oaked Chardonnay adds a refreshing acid that cuts through the savouriness. Served steamed or sashimi style the food-friendly Pinot Noir works really well. Food Technician at Abagold Hermanus, Werner Piek, feels that a crisp Semillon also matches perlemoen well.
It takes five years for an abalone to grow to a 200-gram size. Prices charged easily reach R1000 per kilogram. Abalone fishing is severely restricted in South Africa but you don’t have to dive for your abalone in the Overstrand. There are three abalone plants in Gansbaai and three in Hermanus with all the canning happening in Hermanus. Visit one of the abalone farms if you feel like sinking your teeth into a morsel of chewy mollusk. Remember to take your wallet with.