Ultrapure water, anti-stress prescriptions and homegrown algae are some of the pampering techniques used to rear exquisite abalone – a green and blue shellfish also known as ear shells or sea snails whose size matters but whose price does not, when sampled by the seafood connoisseurs on the other side of the world.
After 13 years of complex research, a small company founded by a group of biologists at the University of Santiago has managed to produce large abalones in a fish farm at the foot of the Rías Baixas, which will finish up 10,000 km away in some of the most exclusive restaurants in Japan, China and South Korea.
One of these four scientists is Óscar Santamaría, director of the project and co-founder of Galician Marine Aquaculture (GMA), who proudly displays a number of abalones measuring 9 cm, worth €10 apiece or €80 a kilo. They are the first abalones to be spawned and fostered in an area specifically selected for the quality of its water, which is sheltered from storms while facing the open sea.
Abalones are greedy eaters and feast for three years on these algae before they are ready to be eaten themselves. In their natural habitat, a kilo of abalones will devour 30% of their bodyweight a day
Bathed in this seawater, whose salt ratio, temperature, oxygen and bacteria content are monitored daily, these esteemed mollusks can grow happily after being spawned in a reproduction unit featuring a sign that commands “Maximum Silence”.
“In Asia, they are farmed on rafts in the open sea and they can’t control the quality of the water as we can here,” says Santamaría, referring to the only fish farm in Spain with haliotis discus hannai – the Japanese variety of abalone – and the biggest of Europe’s only three producers.
The biologists who got the project under way 13 years ago had the bright idea of setting up the farm while cultivating microalgae in their labs to feed the abalone larvae. This is the critical stage of an extremely delicate process in which chemical products have been vetoed by GMA.
It is due to the cultivation of this special food – as important to an abalone as a mother’s milk is to a human – that the Muros farm now produces such quality abalone. As they grow, they move on to macroalgae made in Burgos from a recipe that is also the brainchild of the Galicians.
Abalones are greedy eaters and feast for three years on these algae before they are ready to be eaten themselves. In their natural habitat, a kilo of abalones will devour 30% of their bodyweight a day. “We have to cultivate the algae ourselves or they would clean out the area,” says Santamaría.
Chefs from Galicia like Pedro Roca now feature abalone on their menu, a delicacy that the East Asian communities eat like sushi or sashimi, battered, grilled or “a feira” like octopus Galician-style. But despite being an expert on farming abalone, Santamaría finds it hard to describe the flavor. “It’s similar to octopus in texture, and to scallop in taste, but it’s not exactly the same. It tastes of the sea but not as strongly as the barnacle.”
The Muros abalone farm, which employs a staff of 23, cost €10 million before it began to turn a profit. The first investor prepared to put money into it was Rosalía Mera, the late co-founder of Inditex, some time after the project was first sketched out on a napkin in a bar in A Coruña by Santamaría and his partners.
Thirteen years later, the four molluscateers are exporting 40,000 kg to East Asia and 26,000kg to Europe with a prized 9.5cm abalone expected by the end of the year.
English version by Heather Galloway.