The Americans and Scandanavians love them, while the Brits overlook them. Mark Hix gets his claws into the delicious crayfish

They look beautiful and taste so good when they're properly cooked. Our ponds, lakes and rivers are overrun with them. But probably the only time you'll come across crayfish is in a Pret A Manger sandwich. And theirs are imported from China.

They look beautiful and taste so good when they're properly cooked. Our ponds, lakes and rivers are overrun with them. But probably the only time you'll come across crayfish is in a Pret A Manger sandwich. And theirs are imported from China.

Meanwhile the American Signal Crayfish is taking over our waters and driving out our smaller native White-clawed Crayfish. The best thing to do to the invaders is eat them. If only more people realised you can throw a net with some bait into a heavily populated crayfish water and, in a short time, have enough for several luxurious meals.

The Scandinavians, however, rate crayfish over lobster. In fact they don't just rate it, they rave about it, going crayfish crazy between now and the end of summer as they celebrate the culling of the little freshwater crustaceans with themed feasts and festivities. They actually eat so much crayfish that although their lakes and rivers are full of them, farms in the UK also supply them with it.

I found out about crayfish fever this time last year in Finland when I was visiting the catering college in Helsinki to work with a protégé from The Ivy, Sami Tallerg. Sami met us from the airport and took us straight over to see where he'd been teaching for the past couple of years. The restaurant where students practise on the punters was nothing like those eateries in our colleges.

Tables were laid with table mats honouring the crayfish in poems and sketches. The menu was offering boiled crayfish for about four quid a piece, which seems a hell of a lot of money. In Britain these mini freshwater lobsters are so low down the pinching order you can't give them away, and they never seem to taste of much when you do find them.

When the tiered glass platter heaped with crayfish arrived at the table, I couldn't wait to get stuck in. Sweet and fragrant, thanks to the beer and dill they'd been cooked in, they exceeded my expectations. When shellfish is eaten cold, it's best cooked in a court bouillon or nage and then served at room temperature, not chilled. They were also decorated with dill flowers that tasted more like caraway to me, but I was too busy de-shelling to get into a herbal discussion. Little shots of aquavit chasers helped the delicate flesh go down - and this was just the starter. The crayfish was followed by deer fillet with chanterelles or girolles as we call them.

I thought my Helsinki crayfish experience was one to remember, until I was treated to an outdoor crawfish broil on a visit to Louisiana. Three sack loads containing dozens of crayfish were boiled with Cajun spices in big pots, and tipped onto the middle of the tables straight from the giant boiling baskets. I must have eaten about 200 of the things (they're only about 60g each) which would have set me back eight hundred quid in Finland.

There's some confusion between crayfish and crawfish. In Louisiana they call freshwater crayfish ( ecrevisse in French) crawfish. To us crawfish are the variety of lobster with no claws, also known, rather confusingly, as cape crayfish or rock lobster. If you're not sure what you're getting check if they are the freshwater or saltwater variety. Crayfish are really only good for boiling, but other members of the family, such as the Australian marrons and their large cousins the yabby, are perfect for grilling, just cut in half with some garlic butter.

Crayfish à la Nage

Serves 4-6

This is a classic French way of cooking crayfish in a fragrant court bouillon. The court bouillon can be varied but the main fragrance comes from aniseed-flavoured herbs and spices like fennel, star anise and dill. Use this method of cooking for most crayfish dishes as they can be quite tasteless cooked in salted water. I highly recommend adding beer instead of wine.

1 onion, peeled and roughly chopped, or 4 shallots
2 or 3 sticks of celery, roughly chopped
12 white peppercorns
1 glass of white wine
A few sprigs of thyme
A handful of parsley leaves and stalks
2 bay leaves
2tsp fennel seeds or a couple star anise
1tbsp salt
36 crayfish or more if you are feeling indulgent

Put all the ingredients except the crayfish into a pan with a couple of litres of water or what you estimate is enough to cover the crayfish. Bring to the boil and simmer gently for 15 minutes. Ideally this should be left overnight to infuse and then re-boiled when ready to use.

Add the crayfish to this nage and simmer for 7-8 minutes. Take them out and serve hot in a bowl with some of the court bouillon strained over them and scatter with a few sprigs of dill or dill flowers. Mayonnaise mixed with chopped dill and a shot of aquavit would be the perfect accompaniment. Finger bowls would be useful. f

Crayfish and watercress sandwiches

Now this one is effortless, especially when you use the prepared crayfish tails in brine which are available at many supermarkets and fishmongers. They are, I suppose, equivalent to peeled prawns in brine tastewise and mixed with mayonnaise in a sandwich they are just fine.

8 slices of good bread of your choice
Soft butter
150g or more if you wish of crayfish in brine, drained
4tbsp good quality mayonnaise
100g watercress
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Lemon wedges to serve

Pick through the watercress and discard any thick stalks and brown leaves. Mix the crayfish with the mayonnaise and season with salt and pepper. Butter the bread and divide the watercress and crayfish between then. Sandwich them together and cut the crusts off if you prefer. Serve with lemon wedges.

Fillet of pike with sauce Nantua

Serves 4

Crayfish make a delicious sauce, similar to lobster or shellfish sauce. Quenelle de brochet Nantua is a classic French dish in which both main ingredients come from the river. Pike has an unusual bone structure, unlike most fish, and is a pain to bone from raw. That's why most recipes with pike are made into a mousselline.

I won't put you through the pain of making a mousse but what I will do is share a top tip which given to me by Mauro Bregoli. For many years, until, sadly, he recently sold it, he owned the brilliant Manor House in Romsey, Hampshire. His advice: Buy your pike filleted unless you are a dab hand with a filleting knife. You'll have to order it from a fishmonger. It will need to then be skinned and cut into portions of about 160-180g.

To cook, season the fillets with salt and freshly ground white pepper and steam them for about 10 minutes. If you haven't got a steamer, then lay them in a roasting tray with about 2cm of hot water in, cover with foil and cook in a moderate oven for 15 minutes. This causes the flesh to shrink a little, leaving the bones protruding so they can be pulled out with a pair of long-nosed pliers or tweezers. There are lots of bones so be patient - it's worth it. The fish can then be pan fried in olive oil and butter, re-steamed or roasted in the oven.

Because the flesh of pike is very firm it will withstand double cooking and you can enjoy the flavour of pike as it is rather than being minced up and mixed with cream and eggs.

Pike fishing season is autumn and through the winter; most rivers and some lakes allow pike fishing all year round. If you can't get hold of pike from your fishmonger then turbot, brill or its cousin the zander (pike perch) will do the job nicely.

4 160-180g skinned pike fillets, steamed and deboned as above
16-20 crayfish

for the sauce Nantua

Make the nage from the recipe above. Add the crayfish to the simmering liquid for 7 minutes and plunge them into cold water. Remove the meat from the shells and the claws if they are big enough. Break the shells up a little with a heavy knife and save.

Crayfish shells from above
4 shallots, peeled and roughly chopped
1 clove of garlic, peeled and chopped
A little vegetable oil for frying
A good knob of butter
1 dessertspoon of flour
A good pinch of saffron
A few sprigs of tarragon
1¿2 tbsp tomato puree
60ml white wine
200ml fish stock (a good cube will do)
350ml double cream
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

In a heavy-bottomed sauce pan, fry the crayfish shells, shallots and garlic over a medium heat in the vegetable oil for about 6-7 minutes until they begin to colour lightly. Add the butter and flour and stir well into the shells. Add the saffron, tarragon, tomato puree and stir well. Gradually stir in the white wine and hot fish stock and bring to the boil. Simmer for about 10 minutes until the sauce has reduced by about half then add the cream.

Season lightly with salt and pepper, bring to the boil and simmer gently for about 30 minutes until the sauce has reduced by half and thickened. Strain the sauce through a colander into a bowl and stir through the shells with a spoon to ensure all the sauce goes through. Remove about 10 per cent of the shells - about half a cup - and blend with the strained sauce in a liquidiser. Strain through a fine meshed sieve.

Cook the pike fillets, either by frying in olive oil for 2-3 minutes on each side, then add a small knob of butter and continue until the fillets are lightly browned. Or pre-heat the oven to gas 7/200ºC/ 400ºF, heat a couple of tablespoons of olive oil in a roasting pan and roast the pike fillets for 10-12 minutes or until lightly coloured. Meanwhile simmer the sauce until it is coating consistency (if it isn't already) and drop the peeled crayfish tails into the sauce for one minute to re-heat them. To serve spoon the sauce over the fish fillets. E

CRAYFISH

Like most shellfish - lobsters, crabs and langoustines - crayfish should be alive when you buy them. They are not easy to come by, but most fishmongers should be able to order them for you with a few days' notice. They'll be around £9-£12 a kilo, and there are a dozen to 20 crayfish in a kilo, depending on size. Wholesaler Daily Fish Supplies, London NW1 (020-7383 3771) will deliver a 5kg box of crayfish for £62.50 within the M25. ClubChefDirect (01275 475252 www.clubchefdirect.co.uk), a gourmet delivery service endorsed by chefs, sells crayfish for £19.50 a kilo.

Ikea sells packs of frozen crayfish cooked in a dill sauce. 24-30 crayfish for £5.75

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