Samui Wining & Dining
Catch of the Day

This month’s seafood delight - Abalone.


Thailand,wining,dining,samui,koh,samui,map,siammap,samuimap,holiday,escape,vacation,food,travel,backpack,hotel,roomWell, if you can find it, that is! Sadly, abalone has not only been coming in a different form of late (sliced, not whole) but has become a rarity, too. It’s a relative of sea snails, clams, scallops, octopus and squid. A generation ago, this sturdy clam-like shellfish was abundant all the way from Australia to, surprisingly the coastline of France and even Ireland, although it thrived in warmer climes. You’ll hear old-timers reminiscing about pulling up shells that were eight or nine inches across, and there were as many to be had as they could carry. In South Africa and Western Australia, every low tide revealed thousands of the smaller shells (five inches or so!) that could be pried off the rocks with a screwdriver. And, sadly, this was its undoing. The abalone population began to decline. And, 20 years ago, worldwide panic set in as, in many areas, they’d disappeared altogether.

But it wasn’t just over-fishing that damaged their population. Their main enemy, sea otters, had been spreading outside of their usual habitat, due to gradually shifting climatic conditions. And abalones are one of the many classes of organism threatened with extinction due to the acidification of the oceans from increased carbon dioxide levels – the change in acidity

levels erodes their shells. Sadly, it is predicted that abalones will become extinct in the wild within 100 years at current rates of carbon dioxide production.

For many, the decline of the abalone harvest was a catastrophe. The Maori of New Zealand, and the nearby Pacific Islanders, regarded them as a staple in their traditional diet. But it wasn’t just about food. The inner surface of the abalone shells put the ‘mother of pearl’ lustre of oyster shells to shame. Here they blazed with iridescent deep, blues, violets and purples, varying in hue with location and temperature, right through to deep reds and ambers. They were prized, not only in the jewellery industry, but also by shell collectors all over the globe. Alas, those giant shells, as big as dinner plates, have disappeared today, and are now fetching premium prices in the salerooms. And not only the islanders, but also the seafood industry in general, is suffering from a reduced income from the associated sales of the shells.

Today abalone is considered a protected species just about everywhere. And, like hunting, there are only certain seasons and times of the year that their taking is allowed. For example, the Pacific coast of America has made life harder for abalone fishermen by banning the use of scuba gear. And in Australia, the limits are strict, with some areas having a season that is only two weeks out of every year, and with others having a catch-limit of 10 abalones a day – plus the cost of an expensive licence. And there are similar restrictions in New Zealand and South Africa, too. But the strangest of all the restrictions are in the British Channel Isles.

The Channel Island restrictions governing their ‘ormers’ (yes, that’s what they call them) reads like a Monty Python comedy script. ‘The gathering of ormers is now restricted to a number of ‘ormering tides’ (only between January 1st and April 30th) which occur on the full or new moon and two days following. No ormers that are less than 3.1 inches in shell length may be taken from the beach. Gatherers are not allowed to wear wetsuits or even to put their heads

underwater.’ And beaches Thailand,wining,dining,samui,koh,samui,map,siammap,samuimap,holiday,escape,vacation,food,travel,backpack,hotel,roomare strictly monitored and patrolled during this period. Any breach of these laws is a criminal offence and can lead to fines of up to £5,000 or six months in prison. Wonderfully, to add an equally surreal conclusion, in 1969 these restrictions led to the world’s first underwater arrest, when a resident of Guernsey was nabbed by police divers for ‘illegal ormering’, at night, while all were underwater in full scuba gear.

Abalone poaching has gradually become a thriving business, as the ongoing scarcity has driven prices increasingly higher, and there is now an extensive global black market in abalone meat. Some countries, like South Africa, have tried to ban the sale of the meat within their own country. But this has only led to the poaching of many more immature abalone, most of which end up on the Asian market, where they fetch the highest prices, and are one of the finest and most expensive ingredients used in Chinese cuisine. In Macau, for example, the Rio Hotel is selling the whole, unsliced abalone for several hundreds of US dollars each, depending upon the size. But then the Chinese buy them dried and reconstitute them in a secret broth for one week, while being attended to non-stop by a team of chefs.

In Thailand, however, prices are lower, although it’s the same story here, and over-fishing has almost zeroed the abalone numbers in and around the Andaman Sea. A government survey in 2010 concluded “. . . the high market price and external demand have encouraged local fisherman to catch wild abalone without proper management, resulting in a near extinction crisis in the abalone population in this region.” This, on the other hand, has led to the appearance of several attempts to artificially cultivate them, although the results are usually characteristically small, and tend to appear in restaurants presented in slices rather than whole. Prices vary, and reports range from a small portion of slices for 600 baht, right up to a whole medium sized one served on the half shell for 3,500 baht – twice the cost of a whole lobster!

As far as the cooking goes, the approach is much the same as squid, and a careless approach will produce an expensive and chewy rubber. But, cooked with skill, the texture is light, and the flavour is exceptional. Much like that of a scallop but more intense, and with a richness that is reminiscent of macadamia nuts. It’s altogether something of a delicacy and fast becoming scarce, so catch it while you can!


Rob De Wet


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