This was just one of the many unequivocal “no” responses – which ranged in vigour from mildly suspicious and somewhat indignant, to utterly flabbergasted and absolutely appalled – that I received to my recent requests for perlemoen (abalone) from fishmongers in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban.
Should I be surprised? After all, Haliotis midae – which is the species of perlemoen that is endemic to South African waters and which is referred to as “truly indigenous” “klipkous” (rock stocking) in Dr C Louis Leipoldt’s book, Food & Wine – is hot. It’s hot in a fell-off-the-back-of-a-truck kind of way. After all, with the country’s stocks close to being entirely wiped out as a result of large scale poaching since the early 1990s, perlemoen is illicit, isn’t it?
In fact, the ban on harvesting wild perlemoen took effect on 1 February 2008. The days of thinly slicing, flash frying and tucking into a fresh, deliciously earthy one-kilogram perlemoen that has cuddled in the kelp for many decades are officially over. However, there are close on 20 commercial farms in operation along the Cape coast, lucratively producing and processing harvestable, approximately four-year old “cocktail” perlemoen for legal consumption.
So, strictly speaking, perlemoen is out there, waiting to be enjoyed. The question is where to find these treasured and lawful sea snails, whether they are worth seeking out – you’ll pay Manolo Blahnik prices for a morsel – and what to do with them when you find them?
In spite of our burgeoning aquaculture industry, perlemoen – even legitimate cultivated product – is not easily found locally. Most cultured South African perlemoen is exported to the East where demand exceeds supply and consumers don’t baulk at the price. It is widely used in Asian dishes, stir-fried, pan-fried, poached, steamed, braised and stewed. And it is eaten raw, sliced in thin strips with wasabi and soy sauce.
With a bit of legwork though, you’ll find perlemoen on a handful of (certified) restaurant menus in South Africa. Marine And Coastal Management legislation allows authorised perlemoen farms to supply cultivated perlemoen to local restaurants, which require a special marine aquaculture permit that must “be visible at all times on the premises”.
In Cape Town you can eat it at Baia and Panama Jacks. It’s on the menu at Reuben’s and Bouillabaisse in Franschhoek, Joubert’s and the Marine Hotel in Hermanus, and 34 Degrees South and Zachary’s (Pezula Hotel) in Knysna. At Myoga at the Vineyard Hotel in Newlands, chef Mike Basset says, “the most risqué choice on offer on our menu has to be the cultivated abalone with foie gras and wasabi caviar… the melting soft textures of the foie gras and the abalone marry and meld the meal’s divergent poles”.
Although there are fuzzy reports of fresh perlemoen for sale in Jozi’s Chinatown in Cyrildene from time to time, the shellfish is more difficult to find in Gauteng. You’ll pay about R350 for a main course of thinly sliced and fried perlemoen at Chinese restaurant, Lai Lai Gardens in Illovo, while at Roots at Forum Homini in The Cradle of Humankind, chef de patron Philippe Wagenfuhrer, is looking forward to creating “the most expensive dish in South Africa, using foie gras, Kalahari truffle, caviar and perlemoen soon”.
Current legislation does not permit the sale of cultivated perlemoen from fishmongers or supermarkets. In fact, the restaurant permit stipulates that “abalone shall be consumed on the premises of the restaurant, i.e. no take-aways or doggy bags” and “abalone shall under no circumstances be removed from the premises of the restaurant”. However, according to a representative of Marine And Coastal Management – off the record, she insisted – the future issuing of another permit for the resale of cultivated perlemoen, this time for retailers, is “not an absolute impossibility if there is great enough demand”.
Is a great enough demand likely to transpire? That’s uncertain since the jury, it seems, is still out on whether cultivated perlemoen is worth the legwork and the cost.
“It’s not the same,” says Cape Town chef, Pete Goffe-Wood. “I think when you have dived, hunted for and prepared your own wild perlemoen – as I have – it’s difficult to settle for the smaller, more tender and less intense cultivated meat. It lacks the rich, succulent and earthy flavours of wild perlemoen, which tastes deliciously like it has been sucking on a rock for centuries. Cultivated perlemoen is just not perlemoeny enough for my liking.”
Another Cape Town-based chef, Bruce Robertson concedes that farmed perlemoen is different from its wild cousin: “But it is only about four years old and each one weighs about 120 grams, for goodness sake! Of course it does not taste like its one-kilogram, 75-year-old grandpa, who has been happily feeding off the rocks on the ocean bed forever. The point is, if you want to support a sustainable industry and eat perlemoen – and it is wonderfully unique – your only option is the cultivated version. It remains a fantastically distinctive fish and, when it is prepared correctly, it is absolutely delightful,” he says.
According to Sarina le Roux, who supplies the local hospitality industry with a range of “exotic seafood”, including live, frozen, tinned, minced and dried cultivated perlemoen from HIK Abalone Farm in Hermanus, the export market demands perlemoen that is cultivated for three to four years and which grows to 100 grams per animal. Local chefs, on the other hand, buy perlemoen that weigh anything between 50 and 150 grams each.
“But regardless of size, because our abalone live in a relaxed atmosphere and have no outside predators, they are very tender – not nearly as tough as wild abalone that, after 15 to 20 years of growth, usually require tenderising before consumption – and their texture is extremely delicate. This makes preparing and eating them a pleasure,” she says.
“A whole abalone can simply be pan fried briefly in butter and wine, then served whole or in thin slices. HIK’s abalone mince is also a popular product because of its versatility. It is used it to make fritters, frikkadels and spring rolls, or to stuff cannelloni or ravioli. It is also absolutely delicious fried in butter with onion and dry white wine, cream, salt and pepper, parsley and nutmeg, and served on a bed of rice.”
Perlemoen is considered by many to be best when eaten raw with wasabi and soy sauce. It can also be braised and, with its absorbent texture draws other flavours, like ginger, garlic and oyster sauce, beautifully.
“The key though,” says Robertson, “is not to bugger it up by adding too many other flavours. Perlemoen has a delicate marine flavour and a unique texture. Treat it gently and you’ll understand why we should care so much about this wonderful creature.”
(If you found this article interesting and would like to learn more about farming perlemoen in South Africa, go to the Talking Business category of this site and look for an article entitled SA Leads Farmed Abalone In West Against Hot Competition.)
Pan fried perlemoen
2 x 120 gram fresh (cultivated) perlemoen steaks
3 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
Freshly ground pepper
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2 sprigs parsley
Melt the butter with the oil in a large skillet. When the butter foams and is very hot, add the steaks. Season with salt and pepper, and fry 30 seconds on each side. Do not overcook. Transfer to a warm platter, drizzle with lemon juice and garnish with parsley.
(First published in The Weekender.)