He was tight for an old man, his wetsuit molding a chiseled body still glistening from a midday free dive in the cove below. Barefooted, he trudged up a quiet lane lined with stands of cypress trees bowed and sculpted by the constant wind off the rugged Mendocino coast. He crossed the yard towards his home, a 1960s California ranch crafted from redwood planks, now weathered a New England grey from the salty air. I drove by him very slowly, nervous and unsure of how to approach him.
Earlier that day, predawn found us shivering on a fishing boat, our mugs of Jasmine tea long gone cold. The captain, a middle-aged townie who knew the seas, had a wad of tobacco stuffed in the side his mouth, and turned frequently to spit off the back of the boat. With proper Lost Coast hospitality, we were encouraged to use the coffee maker in the galley, loaded with finely ground beans from Thanksgiving Coffee, the local roaster, and to share in the generous stash of Mendocino’s finest green bud. Trailed by flocks of gulls and the occasional pelican, our boat slowly made its way out of the dark harbor and up along the northern California coast in search of halibut. As the sky brightened and the sun rose, we sunk chunky weights with half a mackerel each as bait from our poles; my fingers frozen a shade of purple-blue and stinking of the acrid, oily bait. The ocean’s swell was just enough to keep me slightly nauseated, but the waters were placid. For several hours, we bounced the lures into sandy shoals on the sea’s bottom where halibut feed.
Or may have fed at some point in the distant past.
In truth, the local fishermen warned me that there was little, if any, halibut to be had. We were too far south, and it was late in the season. But I had a special dinner for which to prepare; the pheasants had already been bagged and brined, and my heart was set on starting the meal with a plate of freshly caught halibut sashimi with grated Oregon wasabi and a drizzle of good, green California oil. But no halibut were to be hauled into the boat. Not even a shimmery salmon, a rather common fish. Perhaps I should have blamed the morning’s lack of success on my fisher-mate. A long-time vegetarian, she later told me that she took one look at the skipper’s heavy iron fish priest and said a silent prayer we wouldn’t have to use it.
I was chilled and tired and the fish coolers were empty as we packed out of our sweet rented cottage hidden in the Mendocino redwoods. I perked up, however, when I spied the shapely old man walking up the street from the beach, a sack hanging heavy off his back.
“You drink red wine, sir?”
And thus began my negotiation for wild abalone.
With northern California’s strong tides, sneak waves and rip currents, as well as low visibility in the kelp beds favored by both abalone and great white sharks, harvesting wild abalone is not for the faint of heart. Considered a marine snail, abalone can only be taken by free diving (without scuba equipment) or by rock picking at low tide. Highly regulated by Fish and Game, the harvest is limited exclusively to red abalone, while strict law protects black, white, pink, and flat varieties. Between April and November, anyone with a California fishing license can pull abalone from the waters north of San Francisco Bay, but they must measure 7” across, with a limit of three per day, maxing out at 24 per year. And while it’s commercially farmed in central California, it is against the law for abalone harvested in the wild to be sold.
On any given weekend during harvest season, dozens of small boats, kayaks and inner tubes bob gently in small coves dotting the coastline, while below the surface, free divers use abalone irons to pry the snail away from rocks, usually at depths of 5-35 feet. Abalone are encased in extremely hard, pearly iridescent shells, often used as ashtrays on the picnic tables of stoners, or hung as badges of honor on garage doors.
I have plenty of ashtrays. It was the meat I craved.
We followed the old man into his home; padding over the plastic sheeting his wife had lain to protect the wall-to-wall carpet from his frequent beach forays. As trade, I set two bottles of good Barolo on the redwood kitchen counter; remains from the case I lugged along for our fishing holiday. In turn, he handed me a bag containing the meat of one large abalone. I danced across the sheeting and out the heavy wooden door, hung proudly with a gleaming abalone shell.
Once home, I began cleaning the ugly beast. Abalone is 1/3 edible meat, 1/3 offal, and 1/3 shell. As the old man had already done the heavy lifting of both harvesting the abalone and prying the meat from its carapace, I trimmed away the viscera and the hard, dark edges and scrubbed it clean. With an enormous wooden mallet and a thick cutting board, I tenderized the tough snail until flat and smooth to the touch, my arm aching from the exertion.
Eggs were whipped with cream and pepper, and fine Italian flour was sifted and seasoned with fresh oregano and chilies. Salted Sicilian capers had been soaking for several hours, and were ready to be fried. The abalone filets were dredged and laid to rest in a cast iron skillet, hot with bubbling butter. Once browned on both sides, I moved them to a warm plate and hit the pan with yet more butter, the juice of green Meyer lemons, a heavy-handed splash of an oxidized Chardonnay, and the rinsed capers. I spooned the goodness over the crisped abalone filets and served them on small plates accompanied by large goblets of flaxen Chablis; the brininess from both wine and snail in perfect harmony.