Over the recent weeks whilst I’ve been “living the dream” and pursuing my desire to revisit the watery haunts of my youth, hunting our native lobsters, I’ve encountered quite a diversity of bycatch in my pots, which is always heartening to see and especially more so, when it’s edible.
On my first outings back in July, I was enthralled to find, not just my prized quarry of Homarus gammarus, but a good assortment of whelks, hermit crabs, shore crabs, common prawns and a species which I’d not expected to see in such profusion – the Velvet or Swimming Crab (Necora puber). I was unashamedly delighted to find these beasts, ensnared within the netted confines of my parlour pots and having been unable to recall their ubiquity back in the 1970’s, save the odd drop-netted specimen, I eagerly landed the first few, cooking them up simply in seawater and picking them out as you would a brown crab.
Utterly divine. Beautifully sweet and delicate meat yielded predominantly from the claws, proved a real treat and a sensational surprise which got me thinking. Talking further to our local inshore fishermen and mounting more of an investigation, I soon learned that throughout the summer months, these amazing, but decidedly tenacious creatures, populate the inshore waters of the Suffolk coast in considerable number, however almost all are discarded when hauled aboard. An exportable commodity in the South West and further North from Scottish waters too, these “Beautiful Swimmers” akin to the Blue Crabs of Chesapeake Bay (that my namesake William Warner so colourfully portrayed in his book of that name) and of the same family (Portunidae), exact a unique appeal that really should be sought firstly at home, rather than denying ourselves what should be as delectable an experience as dining on lobster or langoustines. Landing only the males or “cock “crabs ticks the sustainability box too, selecting out the “hens” for the chance to spawn again.
Inspired by what I’d seen and tasted from those first few hauls, I decided to pursue the trail a little further and discover just what these beautifully-coloured and feisty crustaceans were capable of producing as a main dish, maximising their flavour. Because the yield of meat falls short of their brown or spider cousins, the humble velvet, ideally lends itself to creating not only a hearty and flavoursome stock, but with the fine and delicate nature of its once-cooked shell, the opportunity to be rendered to a sumptuous and exhilarating bisque, rich and fortified with seasonal vegetables and perhaps an indulgence of alcohol, bringing the flavour to the fore.
Although my few pots had been yielding several velvets on each occasion, they didn’t really appear in a number suitable for the production of a decent soup. Also, because of their inherent aggressive nature, they don’t lend themselves to storing in a keep pot and with virtually no commercial value here, nicking the claws to prevent conflict is rather a waste of time. So putting the call out to the fishermen at Felixstowe Ferry that I needed a more representative sample, my request was duly fulfilled by the dependable Butters Bros, who obligingly delivered several kilos of the beasts last weekend, ensuring that I had ample for my recipes.
The velvet is a stunningly beautiful creature. A true swimming crab, its hind pair of legs are shaped with “fins” affording it the ability to swim rapidly towards prey or away from danger. It’s carapace (shell) is covered in a down of fine short hairs, hence its moniker and the blueish tinge to its slightly pointed features makes it very distinguishable amongst the other benthic fauna that crawl and flap about when the pot hits the deck.
It took a couple of boilings to cook all that had been delivered and I must admit the kitchen basked in a gorgeous shellfishy aroma whilst doing so. After approx 10 minutes cooking for each batch, I strained the crabs off and left to cool naturally on a rack before chilling. Once cooked, the velvets turn to a glorious matt red, again totally different to the final colour of a brown crab and more akin to a spider.
To make the most of them and to justify my intentions, I decided to utilise the crabmeat in two ways:
Firstly to prepare everything, I broke away all the claws (some quite considerable in size and certainly equal to a small Cromer) and picked the meat into a bowl. I was surprised how easy this was to achieve when compared to the larger species. The shell is weaker and requires far less effort to crack. The meat is easily extractable then with the end of a teaspoon handle and after a while, having done several, there’s something quite rhythmic about the process and definitely a knack.
Claw meat set aside, I then prepared the bodies (purses) for making the soup base. Splitting the carapace away from the purse (as with a brown crab), pushing upward with the thumbs from behind, is again far easier in a velvet. The legs I discarded, to be cooked down for stock and then removed the “dead mans fingers” or gills, which although not poisonous, wouldn’t add anything to the flavour.
And so the scene was then set for my own kitchen crabfest. I decided on two recipes to extract the best from this beast and rather than just ramble away in a rather Floydesque style, I thought I’d list proper the steps required in each.
1. Potted Velvet Crab (My own)
Using some of the picked claw meat I thought this would be a delicious alternative to shrimps or even lobster, using exactly the same method. Enough for two.
150g Velvet crab meat (flaked)
250g Unsalted butter
Pinch of mace
Pinch of cayenne
2 bay leaves
Pinch of black pepper
Melt the butter in a saucepan with the bay leaves. Skim off the white fat residue and strain the clarified portion into another pan. Add then, the mace, cayenne and black pepper, whist stirring over a low heat.
Put the crab meat into a bowl and gently pour over the liquid, spiced butter, reserving a little for topping off the pots. Stir and coat all the meat generously before spooning into ramekins or small “Kilner”-type preserving jars. Gently press the mixture in with a teaspoon and pour over the remainder of the butter mixture to form a lid. Leave to stand for 10 minutes before refrigerating and setting.
I found this to be an incredibly satisfying way of enjoying a spectacularly tasty alternative to regular crab meat. Think Cromer crab meets brown shrimp and you won’t be far out for flavour. Utterly exquisite and especially delectable, spread atop a generous slice of freshly baked and toasted sourdough. Highly desirable seafood, locally and seasonally sourced from right under our nose.
2. Velvet crab bisque.
Now, for this unctuous and silky smooth shellfish soup, I needed a little guidance. I’ve cobbled together bowls of delicious chowder and take immense pride in my Cullen Skink, but exacting the correct method for a crab soup (or Partan Bree as they call it North of the Border and I don’t mean Norwich!) would take a little more effort. I’ve said before that I’m no chef, nor would I ever aspire to be, but that doesn’t mean that I should do things by halves and I was fortunate indeed, that the renowned and acclaimed shellfish aficionado, Mark Hix generously agreed, that I could showcase his own recipe for this soup, lest I strayed off the path and didn’t quite achieve the desired outcome.
Mark Hix’s Velvet crab soup.
500g Velvet crabs
1 tbsp vegetable oil
1 small onion (peeled & roughly chopped)
I small leek (peeled & roughly chopped)
3 garlic cloves (peeled & roughly chopped)
1 tsp fennel seeds
A few sprigs of thyme
1 bay leaf
2 tbsp tomato puree
3 tbsp plain flour
1 glass white wine
2 litres shellfish stock
100ml double cream
salt & freshly ground white pepper
White crab meat to serve (optional)
*NB Mark’s recipe uses live crabs in the cooking and he suggests sedating them in the freezer for a couple of hours, before humanely dispatching. I had already cooked mine by boiling so I could pick the claw meat separately, but the end result is identical using my prepared purses.*
Heat the oil in a large heavy-based pan and fry the crabs over a high heat for about 5 mins, breaking them up with the end of a rolling pin as they are cooking, until they change colour. Add the onion, leek, garlic, fennel seeds, thyme and bay leaves and continue cooking until the vegetables begin to colour.
Add the butter and stir well, then add the tomato puree and flour, stirring well again and cook for a minute or so over a low heat. Add the white wine, then slowly add the stock, stirring to avoid any lumps. Bring to the boil, season with salt & pepper and gently simmer for an hour.
Blend the mixture a bit at a time, adding more liquid as they are blending until smooth and strain through a fine-meshed sieve.
Return the mixture to a clean pan, season again if necessary and bring to the boil. To serve add the cream and decorate with the remainder of the crab meat (the claw meat in my case), adjust the seasoning again, if necessary and stir well.
Well, I have to confess to you, that this is probably one of, if not the, most delicious seafood dishes, I’ve yet produced. Incredible flavour, simply stunning. An eminently satisfying blend of glossy brown deliciousness, with a heartiness that would go head to head with any of the seafood soups and stews that have delighted my taste buds over the years. Not just a soup though, but a refined and classy dish that really is worth the effort.
It’s even more pleasurable knowing that I can catch these beasts myself and their habitat is right on my doorstep. Speaking to ex-fishermen, fisheries officer and founding Chairman of the National Lobster Hatchery, Eddy Derriman MBE, he concurred with the irony that considering the bulk of these wonderful crustaceans are exported across the channel, UK holidaymakers with their vacational desire for foreign seafood aroused, will, when abroad, consume them with gusto, quite oblivious to the fact that they were probably harvested from our home waters. On return to the UK however, such a foray into shellfish gastronomy would seldom be considered. Absent too, from our fishmongers’ slabs. A true by-catch species that’s worthy of far more than discards and denial. I honestly can’t believe it’s taken me so long. Rest assured, the Avocet’s pots will be fished with renewed enthusiasm and not just for lobsters.
Huge thanks go to Mark Hix for allowing me to reproduce his wonderful recipe.