Don't be put off by the spider crab's Martian-like glare. The spiky shellfish are delicious and should be far higher up the seafood menu, says Paul Quagliana.
Spider crabs are plentiful, sustainable and tasty and up to 1,500 tons of them are landed around the British coastline each year, yet few of us have tasted their sweet meat. About 95% of them are spirited off to the Continent, where they’re valued as highly as lobster and people seem to have a greater appreciation of shellfish and, perhaps, more time to prepare it.
Their meat tastes just as good as that of the brown crab in fact, some say it is far sweeter but our reluctance to eat ‘spiders’ may be to do with their formidable appearance. The spiny Maja squinado, dubbed the ‘devil crab’ for its horned brow, has been likened to an armoured samurai and an alien.
Admittedly, it does look as if there’s a Martian-like intelligence lurking in that spiny carapace: ‘One day, I will take over the world.’ A tiny twitch of a stalk eye and the occasional, contemplative rumination of the jaws is about as emotional as they get.
In spring, hordes migrate inshore, many covering more than 100 miles in eight months from the deeps off the southern and western UK shores. They can be found on the seabed as far up the coast as Anglesey, with an occasional trailblazer picked up further north where they congregate in great mounds to moult and mate.
In recent years, television presenter Monty Halls, who spent six months learning to be a fisherman off the coast of Cadgwith in Cornwall, and chefs, such as Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Bryn Williams of Odette’s in London, who uses spider-crab meat in his signature lasagne dish, have been urging us all to eat more spider crab.
The very fact that they’re so plentiful, sustainable and reasonably priced a whole one from W. Harvey & Sons costs just £3.80 per kilo means we should be eating, and enjoying, far more of them. So, this summer, put your prejudices aside and give it a go.
You can buy spider-crab meat from fishmongers on the internet, but it’s more satisfying to land them yourself, either by snorkelling or using drop nets, which are available from most tackle shops.
Weight the net with half a brick or at least a 12oz lead weight, as it needs to be heavy enough to sink before tidal currents carry it away.
Secure the fish bait tougher specimens, such as gurnard, flatfish, trout and salmon heads, will withstand the ravages of crabs better than softer, oily fish in the bottom with wire or the crabs will abscond with it.
Ideally, place your weighted net on a relatively flat seabed, otherwise the crabs will crawl under the net and chew holes in the mesh. The right pier or jetty is crucial: the two piers at Weymouth in Dorset are ideal, as is Holyhead breakwater on Anglesey.
Drop nets usually have a main cord which must be long enough to reach the seabed attached to three shorter cords that keep the net upright when lifting it out of the water. Grip the main cord just above the three shorter cords and, rotating from the waist, begin an accelerating discus-throwing movement and attempt to hurl the net a few yards out from the side of the pier, away from potential snags or obstructions. The bigger the net, the harder it is to throw, especially into the wind.
When crabs are present in good numbers, the nets two are ideal can be lifted every 15 minutes. Spiders seem to feed best at slacker times of the tide, but, when you do haul them out of the water, check that they’re the right size to land. The legal minimum is 120mm (41⁄2in) across the carapace for females and 130mm (5in) for males, as they have much larger claws. Try not to get your fingers pinched or you’ll be jumping about howling.
To kill a crab humanely, leave it secured in a very cold fridge for a few hours. Then, to be on the safe side, place it on its back, lift the belly flap up and drive a sharp, broad knife straight through to its back, giving the knife a wiggle to guarantee a swift demise.
The pot should be at a rolling boil before you drop the crabs in. Boil them for about 15–20 minutes per kilo (just over 2lb), with a few minutes extra if more than one crab is being cooked at the same time. Before picking out the flesh, be sure to remove the grey, spongy gills and the stomach sac located directly behind the jaws.
Depending on your perspective, picking the meat out of crabs can be a methodical pleasure or a chore, but it’s an acquired skill. You can buy proper crab-picking tools, but small knives and flat, metal kebab skewers with the tips bent slightly inwards with pliers are just as effective. It’s a fiddly business, but, if you’re willing to persist, you can have your crab cake and eat it, too.