Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Spring is for Spider Crabs

     'I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky, and all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by...'
     This classic verse from John Masefield was drilled into me as a young boy and, wanted or not, always creeps back like an impossibly catchy pop song whenever I glance seaward.  A perfect poem exuding a warm and lilting inclination towards a lazy yet brisk stroll along the sands.  Whereas zipping a wet suit on in early May and eyeing the dark and choppy water with a novice's trepidation is entirely another kettle of fish.  Let's get things straight, I love diving for crabs...but I'm no expert.  I would'nt dream of venturing off all aqualunged up without my savvy Breton merman, Kilda Giraudon.  A forager extraordinaire raised among the rock pools and mushroom stocked forests of Northern France, he is a true friend and a great guide to all things wild.
Kilda Giraudon
     What we seek today is the spider crab, Hyas araneus, a spiny, bright red, and well fortified creature that houses a most succulent and sweet meat.  Yet, Brits don't eat them.  They are harvested by the tonnes and shipped off to the broader palates of Portugal and Spain.  True, the brown crab is plentiful and the flesh more easily extracted, but how can you turn your noses up at something so abundant, so easy to catch and so very tasty. They really are good eating.  The legs are deceptively meaty and the honey-comb like carapace holds a multitude of flesh-jammed compartments of very sweet meat, superior in my mind to the brown crab.  Free food gets me excited.  What can be more flash on my dinner menu than, Chef Caught Spider Crab Bisque.  Free-range, organic, wild...nay, 'chef-caught' is the ultimate.  The spider crab starts meandering over the sea bed from France in droves and begins to hit the Devon coast late spring.  They don't only look unusual, their mating habits are also rather kinky.  Most female crabs must moult from their shells, so as to be nice and soft in order to entice the male to the party.  Not so this rough and ready spider.  They'll mate with ardor even though both are armoured to the hilt.  This spiky tough love gets even stranger due to the fact that, if push comes to shove, the female can actually forego the male's advances entirely and apparently perform immaculate conception.  It has been shown that the female can store sperm somewhere within for years if necessary in the case of males being a bit sparse.  How very crafty.

     Splash.  To all you land-lubbing Devonians that live within a stone's throw of the sea- it really isn't that cold.  Seriously.  With a good wet suit, you will shudder for only a moment.  We bob about around 2-3 metres in depth, taking large breaths and darting down quickly to make the most of what can only be short, sharp attacks on the exodus below.  Gloves are highly recommended.  The back of the spider crab is near razor sharp with a prehistoric cover of knobby bumps and crevasses.  This surface will thrash your fingers if left uncovered, as you clutch breathless at this slowly escaping delicacy.  The real shock is the sheer number of crabs.  At times they seem to be everywhere.  And, spoiled for choice you dive again and again, greedily searching for the largest.  The bigger the better.  Once you get your sea legs, brown crabs, lobsters, sea bass and scallops can all be had with a little luck, a keen eye and the right tools.

     Spring lamb has become a bit of misnomer, what with great flavoured meat around these parts all year, and the Easter push arguably dropping the quality somewhat.  Let's start a new spring tradition.  Spider crabs.  What a great way to keep fit and work up an appetite simultaneously.  A fabulous South West ingredient that we can eat guilt free and for free.  Surf's up.

Spider Crab & Wild Garlic Bisque
Yield: 10-12

1-2 Crabs (Fully cleaned with a nail brush or similar, smashed and roasted)
Sunflower oil
400gm Mirepoix (Roughly chopped fennel, onion, leek, celery, carrot)
2 Shots brandy or dry white wine
100gm Tomato puree
100gm Flour
100gm Butter
2 Bay leaves
2 Tinned tomatoes
1-2 Star Anise
1tsp Fennel seeds
1tsp Coriander seeds
1tsp Black peppercorns
Tarragon (or parsley/dill)
Pinch of saffron
Fish stock to cover (or water)
Wild garlic leaves

1) Heat 2tbsp of sunflower oil in a roasting tray and fully roast  
the two rough chopped/smashed crabs at 180 degrees for approx. 1 hour.
2) Heat 2tbsp of sunflower oil in a large pan and fry off the mirepoix on a high heat, adding the brandy and tomato puree towards the end.
3) Add the roasted crab, and all other ingredients except the flour and butter.
4) Simmer for one hour.
5) Remove half the crab frames and blitz the remaining soup in a very powerful blender.
6) Strain through a chinois and then through a fine sieve. (Muslin or tights work well.)
7) Make a roux with the flour and butter and slowly add the hot strained soup.  Bring to a boil, simmer for 15 minutes, check the seasoning, stir in some chopped wild garlic and serve.  Here I had so much crab, I boiled an extra one up for 10-12 minutes and flaked some over the soup.

Does my bum look big in this?


  1. One of my favourite blogs. It is inspiring to read about a chef that lives and writes with so much passion. From crabs to knives, books and recipes I am always impressed.

    Thank you.

  2. Hey! Fantastic, great to hear it. I often wonder if there is anyone out there in the ether...
    Spread the word! (Why don't people comment more?)