Abalone are a highly prized shellfish delicacy, now scarce in most countries where they were once plentiful. Known as much for their beautiful iridescent shells as for the delicately flavoured meat, this exotic shellfish is not something one might expect to find in the rugged surroundings of the West of Ireland.
Except for flurry of interest when there is demand for the Chinese New Year celebrations in Ireland, most of the production is exported - although Connemara Abalone is worth looking out for in the area as it is sometimes showcased in local restaurants.
About 80 different abalone species are native to the warm temperate waters off Japan, China, California, Mexico, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and France, but wild abalone fisheries in most of those countries are now either closed or severely restricted.
Demand for abalone remains strong, however, so in order to supply the market, they must be farmed. Connemara Abalone was started in 2002 by Cindy O'Brien. As a California native with a degree in Marine Biology from Cal. State University, Long Beach, Cindy has long been familiar with abalone and their aquaculture.
Having moved to Ireland in 1996 with her Irish husband and young children, Cindy saw the pristine waters (and abundant seaweed) off Connemara as an ideal environment in which to raise abalone. Moreover, two species of abalone had already been introduced to Ireland by BIM and NUIG's Cama Research Lab., so both technical and financial support was readily available from Irish government agencies (Udarás na Gaeltachta, BIM, Bord Bia), and greatly appreciated.
Technically, abalone are single-shelled gastropods (a group that includes clams, scallops) that feed on seaweeds. Apart from their shell, they are almost pure protein. In fact they are the most efficient way known to nature of converting red or brown algae into white protein. They are also rich in Omega-3 and other minerals (typical Omega-3 content is 500mg per 100g of raw abalone).??It takes approximately 4 years for abalone larvae to reach market size of 7-8cm length.
Connemara Abalone has its own hatchery at the farm, so it can spawn and raise abalone from larvae right up to adult size; for the final three years or more their diet is abundant locally and free – fresh seaweed. At the end of this process they are shipped from their tanks to market, where they must live up to their reputation as the "truffles of the sea".?
The texture of a raw abalone is quite firm, but once cooked (for just 30-40 seconds in most recipes) it can be cut like butter and has a sweet, nutty flavour. Abalone can be served with creamy or spicy sauces, or just drizzled with lemon or lime.
They are quite filling so the suggested serving size is 2-3 abalone for an appetiser, and 5 to 6 for a main course. There are easy-to-follow recipes recipes and methods for cooking abalone on www.abalone.ie