Spring is the time for Spider Crabs

PUBLISHED: 15:41 26 April 2011 | UPDATED: 19:15 20 February 2013

Spring is the time for Spider Crabs

Spring is the time for Spider Crabs

Christopher Archambault goes in search of this underwater delicacy

Whenever I glance seaward, a classic verse from John Masefield, drilled into me as a young boy, always creeps back like an impossibly catchy pop song: 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. Its a perfect poem, exuding a warm and lilting inclination towards a lazy yet brisk stroll along the sands.

Whereas zipping a wetsuit on in early May and eyeing the dark and choppy water with a novices trepidation is entirely another kettle of fish. Lets get things straight: I love diving for crabs but Im no expert. I wouldnt 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.

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 dont eat them. They are harvested by the tonne 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 honeycomb-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 dont 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; theyll mate with ardour even though both are armoured to the hilt. This spiky tough love gets even stranger owing to the fact that, if push comes to shove, the female can actually forgo the males 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 who live within a stones throw of the sea it really isnt that cold. Seriously. With a good wetsuit, 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, spoilt 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. Lets start a new spring tradition spider crabs. What a great way to keep fit and work up an appetite simultaneously; a fabulous Devon ingredient that we can eat guilt-free and for free. Surfs up!

Spider Crab and Wild Garlic Bisque

Serves 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 pure
100gm flour
100gm butter
2 bay leaves
2 tins 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

Heat 2tbsp of sunflower oil in a roasting tray and fully roast the two rough chopped/smashed crabs at 180C 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 pure 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.

Devilled Devon Crab

Serves 2
2 cooked medium-sized Devon brown or spider crabs
1tbsp sunflower oil
2tbsp butter
1 small garlic clove, minced
1 small red chilli, diced
1/2 medium white onion, diced
3tbsp sherry or white port
1tbsp cider vinegar
200ml double cream
1tbsp Worcestershire sauce
Dash of Tabasco
1tsp Dijon mustard
1tbsp lemon juice
Pinch of smoked paprika
Salt to taste
2tbsp chopped chives or parsley
Fresh white breadcrumbs to cover

Reserving two of the legs, pick all the meat, brown and white, from the crabs and place in a bowl.
2 Break the underbelly shell of both crab carapaces to the characteristic pie crust edges to form two perfect baking dishes. Rinse well and dry.
3 Using the sunflower oil and half the butter, gently cook the garlic, onions and chilli in a frying pan until softened.
4 Add the sherry and vinegar, reduce until thickened.
5 Add the double cream,
Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, mustard, lemon juice and paprika.
6 Reduce by half and add salt to taste.
7 Mix through the crab meat and chives.
8 Fill the two crab carapaces and top with fresh breadcrumbs.
9 Dot with the remaining butter and place in a hot oven for 20 minutes or until golden and bubbling.

To serve
Serve with crisp lettuce, shaved fennel and caper salad. Crack the remaining claws loosely and arrange them next to the crab bowls with a couple lemon wedges and some toasted brown bread. I think it is great to have your piping-hot devilled crab ready to smear on toast, while the cold claw mixes nicely with the salad. A chilled glass of Chablis or Pastis will greatly complement this dish.

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