Make the most of the season’s produce with the help of chef and food writer, Gill Meller. This month, Gill tells us why British brown crab season is one to champion, especially when baked into a creamy crab gratin for two.
Photography: Gill Meller
One of my earliest food memories is watching my dad preparing a couple of large brown crabs at the kitchen table. I can’t have been more than three years old but the image has stayed with me. Perhaps it was the crabs’ unusual form that caught my imagination as a child. I don’t actually remember tasting it back then but I certainly recall how carefully he worked through the shells, with a little pick and his special hammer. He made sure he got all the meat out and didn’t waste a bit.
Crab is one of my favourite things to eat now. I love it. I’d have it as my last supper or if I was stranded on a desert island. Although, that might be all I’d get!
Our native species include the rather gnarly looking spider crab, which congregates by the thousands along Dorset’s shorelines to breed in May. We also have the little velvet crab. It’s wonderfully tasty, but due to its size, it’s rather fiddly to prepare.
Why brown crab is the crab of choice
Brown crab seems to be Britain’s favourite native species and for good reason. It’s sensational to eat. Sadly, years of overfishing have resulted in diminished stocks of brown crab, so it’s really important that when we do eat it, we give some thought to where it’s come from and how it’s been caught.
Sole Of Discretion works with a community of small-scale sustainable fishers
The waters off England’s south-west coast produce some of the finest crab in the world and much of it is caught in pots by small day boats. Potting for crab on a small scale is the most sustainable way of catching it. Smaller crab, that aren’t quite big enough to make a meal of can be returned safely to the sea and female crabs that are carrying eggs can go back too, thus protecting stocks for future generations. Only the right crab in the right conditions will be taken. This is more a way of managing our aquatic ecosystem rather than decimating it.
Sole of Discretion is an ethical fishmonger based in Devon. They work with a community of small-scale sustainable fishers who strive to maintain the delicate eco-balance of sea life. All their fish and shellfish is completely traceable, including each and every crab they source from the fast running tidal waters off Dartmouth, Salcombe and Start Point.
All this wonderful crab is freshly cooked, picked by hand and sent out within hours of being landed. As a result, the meat is incredibly sweet and delicate, which is of course the way it should be.
How to cook and eat crab
One of my favourite ways to eat crab is simply piled onto warm buttered toast and served with good mayonnaise and a glass of white wine – heaven. But sometimes, I like to push the boat out, and ‘devil’ it. This involves making a piquant sauce with cayenne pepper and mustard (that’s the devil bit), which is enriched with brandy and double cream. The crab gets stirred through this hopelessly delicious sauce before getting piled back into its shell. Or if you’re sharing, a gratin dish for two, grilled until bubbling and golden.
Devilled Cornish Crab Gratin
– a knob of butter
– 2 shallots, peeled and finely diced
– a splash of good sherry or brandy
– 1 tablespoon cider vinegar
– ½ tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
– 1 heaped teaspoon Dijon mustard
– 1 heaped teaspoon redcurrant jelly
– cayenne pepper
– 200ml double cream
– about 8 fresh chives, finely chopped
– 2 dressed crabs, in the shell
– salt and freshly ground black pepper
– ½ a lemon
– 1 handful of coarse fresh breadcrumbs
– 1 tablespoon sheep’s cheese of other hard cheese, finely grated
– olive oil
1. Place a large heavy-based pan over a medium heat. Add the butter and when it’s bubbling away, add the shallot and fry gently for 3 to 4 minutes without colouring.
2. Add the the sherry or brandy, let it boil off for a few seconds, then add the vinegar, Worcestershire sauce, mustard, redcurrant jelly and a good pinch of cayenne pepper and stir well.
3. Now, add the cream and bring to a simmer. Cook for 2 minutes or until it starts to thicken nicely.
4. Fold the chives and the picked crab meat into the sauce, then season everything well with salt and pepper and a little squeeze of lemon juice.
5. Spoon the crab meat back into the shells or into a medium-sized baking dish. Sprinkle over the breadcrumbs and the grated cheese then trickle over a little olive oil.
6. Place the dish in the oven and bake for 15 to 20 minutes until the creamy crab mixture is bubbling and the breadcrumbs are golden. Serve straightaway with a green salad or a lightly dressed red chicory salad.
For dressed crab from ethical fishmongers delivered to your door, head to farmdrop.com.