It’s time Australians got more of a taste for our homegrown abalone, insists Anthony Huckstep, who risks hungry sharks, high seas and an empty dance card to track down submerged treasures off the NSW south coast.
I’m not sure about you, but I only shake my booty after a few glasses of courage. If only I’d had access to such liquefied motivation in my youth. That chunky little Huck sat on the sidelines of every Blue Light Disco anxiously pondering how to ask his latest crush to dance. The threat of rejection circled like a bloodthirsty shark and I often went home hopeful there were plenty more fish in the sea, rather than telling tales of the catch of the day.
Recently I asked a mate, Ross, what I thought was a simple enough question: “Do you wanna shuck the abalone?”
“Nah man, I don’t dance,” he replied.
For most of us, abalone is that luxurious ingredient we want but are too intimidated to approach. And yet Australia produces some of the finest abalone and supplies about half the global market.
Keen to understand more, I packed my floaties and drove south to Eden, a stunning NSW seaside town where big skies meet ripples of deep blue and the air is fresher than a Fisherman’s Friend. Sadly though, ATSSU (Abalone, Turban Shell, Sea Urchin) Divers co-owner Ryan Morris tells me I could have packed lighter.
“Mate, the weather is f–ked – 40 knots and a three-metre swell. I can’t let you in the water.”
Rejection never felt so relieving. You see, my strongest stroke is sink and I’m worried about becoming shark bait.
“What do you do if you see a shark?” I ask.
“Get out of the f–king water!” Ryan laughs.
“No, first you scream at the deckhand,” says Les, Ryan’s deckhand father and the abalone licence holder.
“Yeah, that’s right, Dad,” glares Ryan. “Sometimes you come up to the surface and the decky has the boat 100 feet away.”
“Not me!” laughs Les.
You don’t want to be floundering on the surface waiting for someone to pick you up when there’s a shark – but it’s not the sharks that pose the greatest risk, it’s the weather. “I’d rather dance with a shark than take on nature any day,” says Ryan.
Ryan dons a weight vest with some 13 kilograms added to help hold him underwater. He takes the plunge with a bag and a tool equipped with a measuring rule that helps to prise the abalones off the rocks and ensure they’re within the size regulations. He dives for up to three hours at a time, often twice a day, breathing through a surface-supplied air system called a ‘hookah’.
Les, a qualified jeweller, left the world of gold rings to chase the jewels of the sea in the late ’90s when offered a rare abalone licence. The father and son combo now dive two licences, with each one on a quota to harvest 3.6 tonnes per calendar year, but that alters annually based on biomass numbers.
Because abalone are caught by hand there is no bycatch. Given father and son are only harvesting 15 per cent of the biomass, they’re ensuring the sustainability of the species in their area.
Abalone ranks second in export value to lobster, but Ryan’s mission is to ensure the east coast blacklip stays in Australia so we can enjoy its glory more often.
Shaped like a human ear, the abalone shell has a row of holes along the outer concave side and a ‘foot’, or muscle, on the other. The ‘foot’ looks and works like a suction cup, attaching the abalone to rocks found on reefs, in hidden caves and in crevices at depths of up to 10 metres where they eat algae and seaweed.
Once harvested, Ryan stores them live in seawater tanks in Pambula until they’re transported to restaurants such as Quay, Sepia and Rockpool Bar & Grill, and to Sydney Fish Market.
In truth, ‘shucking the abalone’ isn’t as confronting as it might seem, especially if you’ve shucked an oyster.
“Hold the abalone on the shell side and slide a tablespoon under the foot [to shuck it],” says Ryan. Then remove the roe, clean the foot with a scourer and cut the frill with a sharp knife. Cut the bulbous top of the abalone from the base of the foot and you have the gorgeous, glistening puck.
The blacklip is a meaty abalone that’s subtly sweet with a firm, mushroom-earthy flavour and all the umami oomph of a big gulp of miso soup.
Slice it thinly and dip it in boiling water for a few seconds or, as the Australian Fish & Seafood Cookbook suggests, try it quickly pan-fried with ribbons of zucchini and garlic. Simple, sustainable and satisfying – enough to make you want to dance like no one is watching.