All about brown crab
Abundant, sustainable and packed with flavour, brown crab is a real highlight of the summer seafood menu – and it works brilliantly on the BBQ too, says Tom Hunt.
When I think of crab it conjures up memories of the Mediterranean: glasses of rosé, terraces, sun and French waiters balancing huge seafood platters of langoustine, oyster, and crabs with prawns dancing around the outside. Seafood platters always impress me. I find them incredibly opulent, probably because of all those oysters and lobster. But to my mind, the crab is the real star of the show, sat proudly in the centre, its claws raised demanding attention.
That said, brown crab, or Cancer pagurus, is a humble-looking beast: plain reddish brown with a “pie crust” shell. It takes real work to eat too – but it’s well worth the effort. The claws give up their contents easily: with a large thwack you can reveal a chunk of white meat that satisfies the initial carnivorous need. But extracting the rest takes skill and patience: you have to whittle away with a fork or a pick, teasing the sweet morsels from the honeycombed cavities. A neat trick I learnt recently is to break the smaller legs off at the knuckle, then suck the meat out directly. It’s sweet and has a jelly-like texture, with oh so much flavour.
As well as being delicious, brown crab is a great sustainable choice. These crustaceans are highly fertile and reproduce quickly, plus they’re caught in pots, which is a low impact fishing method. The pots are baited with fish (the stinkier the better), then dropped over the side of the boat to rest on the seabed. Crabs scuttle into the narrow entrance to get at the food, becoming trapped inside. The pots are highly selective, so there is very little by-catch, plus they are hauled up and checked regularly. Crabs that are too small or carrying eggs are thrown back. (To find out more about catching brown crabs in Cromer, click here.)
If you’re feeling lazy, buy hand-picked crab meat: the machine-processed variety lacks flavour, as the meat is typically extracted by washing out the carcass, which washes away a lot of the flavour in the process. It’s good to know that the male, or cock, crab – identified by the thin abdominal flap underneath – has more white meat than the female, or hen, which has more brown meat. If you have the time and you’re not squeamish, I’d always recommend buying a live crab and preparing it yourself: as with all seafood, freshness is king.
But take care! When I worked as a teacher and chef at River Cottage HQ, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall gave a demonstration on preparing crab that didn’t go so well. The live crab waiting to be dispatched latched on to his finger. We all rushed to help. Someone eventually got the crab off by pulling its whole claw from its body. Hugh, who had remained remarkably calm throughout, held his finger up for inspection. It was undeniably flat. Two seconds later, he was passed out on the floor, but I’m sure you’ll be glad to hear he made a quick recovery (and so did his finger). Usually the tendons on the crab’s claws are cut so that it can’t attack, but the fisherman or fishmonger must have forgotten in this case. So always best to watch out for the claws: see my barbecue crab video on how to dispatch a crab safely.
Barbecued brown crab and broad bean bruschetta
This is one of my favourite recipes. Cooking the crab on the BBQ intensifies its flavours and tastes so damn good! Plus this method of cooking broad beans is especially rewarding: as you watch them cook on the hot coals, they steam in their own jackets. Alternatively you can cook this indoors, on a griddle.
Serves 6 as a starter
- 500g broad beans
- 1 live crab (about 1kg)
- 3 sprigs flat parsley, picked and chopped, stalks kept for stock
- 1/2 lemon, juiced
- Extra virgin olive oil
- 6 slices of sourdough or baguette
- Clove garlic
- First light your BBQ or heat your griddle pan. If using a BBQ, allow the coals – I like to use lumpwood charcoal – to become white hot and then cool down a little.
- To kill the crab humanely, turn it on its back, lift the ventral plate beneath, which is a small hole roughly in the middle of the body. Firmly drive a small knife into the hole straight down till it meets the shell.
- Place the crab shell side down on the white hot coals and leave for 8 minutes. Flip the crab and leave for another 8 minutes.
- Allow the crab to cool for 15 minutes. Meanwhile barbecue your broad beans by placing them in their pods directly on to the coals or griddle. Allow about 50% of the skin to blacken and blister then turn. Allow the other side to char too. After about 5 minutes the beans will have steamed inside. Allow to cool enough to handle and remove from the pod.
- To pick the crab meat, pull off the legs and claws. Crack them open with a rolling pin or pestle and pick the meat out with the back of a teaspoon or small knife. Now prise the main shell from the body, pulling it apart at the rear of the crab. Remove the gills which look like pointy fingers situated on the body of the crab – this is the only part that is inedible. Remove the delicious brown meat from the shell. Cut the body in half and pick out the white meat from the little crevices. Click here for a step-by-step guide.
- Mix all the brown and white crab meat with the broad beans, parsley and lemon juice.
- Toast the bread on the barbecue until it colours slightly on both sides. Rub with garlic and top with crab.
MCS* rating: 2-3
Ask for: Pot caught as it is a low impact fishing method.
Recommended minimum size: Guidelines vary but avoid buying crabs smaller than 13-14cm.
When to buy: All year round but best in the summer months.
*MCS: Marine Conservation Society. Provides independent scientific advice on fishes sustainability. 1-2 = fish to eat | 3 = think | 4-5 = fish to avoid.
Tom Hunt is author of The Natural Cook: Eating the Seasons from Root to Fruit. He is founder of Forgotten Feast, a campaign working on projects throughout the UK to revive our cooking heritage and help reduce food waste, and Poco, a festival café and award-winning restaurant in Bristol. Click here to read his blog, Tom’s Feast.