Simon Hopkinson believes that sourcing and serving a quality crab dish is well worth the effort.
In Roast Chicken and Other Stories (Ebury Press, 1994), I penned these words regarding crab: ‘There is a surprisingly large amount of meat in a good weighty crab. It takes time and trouble to prise it out of every nook and cranny, but it is worth it if you like crab as much I do. One way to prevent it seeming too tedious is to pick and eat at the same time, with a generous pot of mayonnaise on the side. This makes for an occasion that involves energetic participation with everybody wielding picks and claw-busters.’
Not surprisingly, I still stand by this convivial enterprise as a very good thing. However, more than 20 years on, there are plenty of suppliers who will furnish one with ready-picked crab meat of a far superior quality than one was able to purchase in those days; sadly, there also continues to exist a deeply inferior product now, as then, so take care and watch out where you shop. Farmer’s markets and careful fishmongers are one’s best bet. Near me in west London, for instance, the Saturday market in Notting Hill (www.lfm.org.uk/markets/notting-hill) displays a fish stall that sells picked crabmeat of excellent quality and, in full summertime, picked lobster meat. As if Notting Hillers weren’t spoiled enough already, the Fish Shop at Kensington Place (020–7243 6626), just around the corner, further offers top-quality picked crabmeat, too; of a morning, you may ravenously watch its meticulous pickers at work through the shop window.
One may also pose the question as to where the finest, traditionally dressed crab (that is, both the picked brown and white crab meat decoratively returned to its shell) can be found along the British coastline? Some will say that the dressers of Cromer, on the north Norfolk coast, are the finest in the land. Others will counter this with those from Cornwall.
However, for me, one of the finest renderings I have eaten — and in a very long time — was a south Devon dressed crab recently served to me on the Pullman service offered by the enterprising Dartmouth-based chef Mitch Tonks and his team in the restaurant car of the Plymouth to London Paddington train, in May (telephone 0345 700 0125 for reservations).
The white meat was exceptionally fresh and fudgy, with the brown stuff subtly spiced and buttery rich as the perfect foil, together with a fine mayonnaise and saladings as a matter of course. There was also some choice smoked salmon on offer, as well as a carefully cooked fillet steak — and all prepared in a kitchenette the size of a broom cupboard. So, Mr Tonks, bravo! — such brave ventures should be encouraged at every opportunity. But this particular initiative has always been dear to my heart, especially when clattering along the Dawlish track, with the sea spraying the train window with its spume. And, with a glass of (very good) Chablis to hand, all seems well with the world.
Baked devilled crab (above)
An elegant little number for a smart supper party. Everything may be prepared in advance up to the point of whisking the egg whites, so relax. Almost a soufflé, but not quite.
400g tin chopped tomatoes
2 large cloves garlic, crushed and finely chopped
A little salt and pepper
75ml double cream
Half a tspn saffron stamens
100g brown crabmeat
1tspn English mustard powder
60g white crabmeat
2 eggs, separated
A little softened butter
1tbspn grated Parmesan
First of all, tip the tomatoes into a small, stainless-steel pan and add the garlic and seasoning. Over a moderate heat, stirring occasionally, reduce the mixture until it’s very thick — almost to a paste. Leave to cool.
Meanwhile, warm the cream in another small pan, remove from the heat and swirl in the saffron. Leave to infuse. Pre-heat the oven to 200˚C/400˚F/gas mark 6.
Now, stir the saffron-infused cream into the tomato mixture, together with the brown crabmeat, Tabasco, mustard powder, white crabmeat and the two egg yolks. Mix together well and set aside.
Have ready four lightly buttered large ramekins/soufflé dishes (when filled, the mixture should not be more than about two-thirds capacity, as it will rise while baking).
Take a medium-sized metal bowl and put in the egg whites, together with a tiny pinch of salt. Whisk until stiff, but not dry, then carefully, although thoroughly, fold them into the tomato/crab mixture. Carefully spoon into the ramekins, very lightly tap to settle the filling and sprinkle the surface of each one with Parmesan.
Slide them into the oven and bake for about 20 minutes or until lightly puffed and a pale golden brown. Serve forthwith.
Ironically, it was also at The Carved Angel in Dartmouth, when Joyce Molyneux owned that extraordinary restaurant, that I was served a plate of dressed crab so immaculate that it changed my view of the dish forever. For me, something so simple had never been thought through more thoroughly. But then, essentially and always, this was Joyce’s daily culinary drift whatever, and whenever, she cooked. The following recipe was absolutely inspired by her and, consequently, became one of the first dishes on the menu at Bibendum when we opened the restaurant in 1987.
For the brown crabmeat dressing
150g brown crabmeat
Scant tbspn tomato ketchup
1 heaped tspn Dijon mustard
2tspn made horseradish sauce (Colman’s is best)
Juice of half a lemon
1tspn anchovy sauce (or 2 small anchovy fillets)
A trickle or two of fruity olive oil (optional)
400g white crabmeat
1tbspn finely chopped fresh herbs, comprising roughly equal parts of dill, tarragon, chives and parsley
Juice of half a lemon
Large pinch cayenne pepper
2tbspn fruity olive oil
A little salt
To make the dressing, place all the ingredients — apart from the olive oil—into a small food processor and purée until very smooth. For the white crabmeat, simply break it up with a fork in a bowl (look out for any pieces of shell), then mix in the other ingredients until well dispersed. If you wish to serve the crab on individual plates, then place a neat pile of the white meat in the middle of each one and carefully spoon the brown-meat dressing around it. Trickle a little extra olive oil to finish the dish, if you like.