Pincer movement: Angela Hartnett champions the cause of the brown crab

Why does Britain export 90 per cent of its brown crabs? We should be enjoying them ourselves, argues chef Angela Hartnett.

The Notting Hill fishmonger seemed unimpressed that the large brown Dorset crab he was selling me was destined for the ministrations of Angela Hartnett, Michelin-starred former Gordon Ramsay protégée and probably Britain's greatest female chef. "We've had quite a few of them in 'ere today buying crab," he confides, taking 27 smackers off me. "Nigella Lawson, Ruby Wax..."

Blimey, what are the odds of that? It must have been Celebrity Crab Monday. "I have to take this across London to Whitechapel," I tell the man as he deposits the living and breathing (through their gills, like a fish; on land, plates close around their gills to retain moisture) crustacean into a plastic shopping sack. I don't want to alarm my fellow Central Line underground passengers. "Nah, don't worry; there's not much life left in this one," he assures me.

"£27? Oh, crikey, that is quite expensive for one crab," says an amused Hartnett when I deliver my seemingly comatose purchase to the kitchens of the Whitechapel Gallery Dining Room, where Hartnett, chef-patronne of Murano in Mayfair, now consults on the menu and occasionally cooks. "Crabs are not cheap, mind you. They're generally about £15 a kilo – they're slightly cheaper than lobster, and if you're buying a whole crab you can use all the bones for stock. There is no waste, potentially." A sous-chef whisks mine off to a freezer, where, the theory goes, she (my he "cock" is a she "hen", it turns out – you can tell by their size and markings) will drift off to sleep.

How to execute a crab or a lobster with the minimal cruelty is a subject of fierce debate. In 2005, Norwegian scientists concluded that crabs were unable to feel pain (don't ask how they discovered that), while a later study, in which hermit crabs were subjected to electric shocks, suggested the opposite. And on the subject of electric shocks, there's even a company that markets a so-called "Crustastun", an RSPCA-approved machine that delivers 110 volts to stun crustaceans humanely. The machine not only kills them kindly, its inventors argue, but, because it does not unduly traumatise the creatures, delivers tender, sweeter meat. But at £2,500 for an entry-level model, the Crustastun is beyond the pocket of most home cooks.

The fishmonger had suggested inserting a knife beneath the flap on its belly to sever its central nervous system, but, as it happens, Hartnett also believes in boiling them alive – albeit slowly and when the creature is sleeping. "It's quite cruel in a way... it's like lobsters," she says. "Some people just put them into boiling water, but the less cruel way is to freeze them down so they fall asleep. Then you put them into water and bring them to the boil, and cook them in the water. We normally have them on ice and then they're still alive – you always have to check they're alive. You don't want to find them dead because when you come to cook them, there's no meat left. The meat starts to deteriorate as soon as they die."

Indeed, Simon Hopkinson, in his seminal cookery book Roast Chicken and Other Stories, advises checking that the crab you are buying is heavy for its size. "This indicates that there is plenty of meat inside and that the crab has grown to fill its shell."

Hartnett, meanwhile, is boiling a stock pot of water to which she has added star anise, chopped lemons, coriander seeds, parsley stalks, white wine, large shallots, carrots, leeks and celery. "Boil the crab for about five minutes and let it cool down in the water," she advises. Now Hartnett isn't just showing me how to kill and cook crustaceans for the fun of it – in fact, she has become an advocate of our native brown crab, the Cancer pagurus. It's all part of a new BBC2 television series, Great British Food Revival, in which celebrity chefs attempt to rescue various foodstuffs from neglect – Michel Roux Jr on home-baked bread, the Hairy Bikers on the cauliflower, Matt Tebbutt on mutton, and so on.

Hartnett has chosen to fight the corner of our native crab, and you can see her point. The brown crab has a distinctly unfashionable aura, redolent of the Fifties seaside boarding house, perhaps, of dressed crab or potted crab sandwiches on Cromer Pier. Either that, or the ubiquitous (albeit delicious) gastropub cliché of tian of white crab meat on an avocado base.

"Crabs are one thing people will rarely prepare at home," Hartnett says. "They'll have it in a restaurant but very rarely at home. And supermarkets tend not to stock it, nor do fishmongers. It's a lot of work to prepare it, but once you do, it's quite easy." The traditional method of preparation is "dressed crab", in which the two claws are removed, the legs snapped off and cracked to remove the white meat inside. Flipped on its back, the belly shell is then plucked out, the grey feathery-looking gills (or "dead man's fingers") discarded, along with the stomach sac, and the unctuous brown meat scraped into a bowl. Then you wash out the shell, and return the crab meat – brown in the middle, white on the sides. All a bit of a fuss, frankly.

"We always do crab linguine at work [at Murano], which is so easy – just lovely fresh crab meat with chilli, garlic, parsley and basil, a bit of white wine. Or you can do little crab fishcakes – you know, it's more versatile than we give it credit for."

Delicious and packed with goodness, crab meat is low in saturated fat (though high in sodium and cholesterol), and packed with vitamin B12, zinc, copper and selenium. It is also largely sustainable, especially with consumption dipping during the recession. Not that it's we who are consuming it. For while the British Isles are the among the world's largest harvesters of brown crab, a staggering 90 per cent of British-caught crab is shipped abroad – mainly to France, Spain and Portugal.

Do the Italians not eat crab, I ask, aware of Hartnett's Italian heritage? She first learnt to cook at her beloved Italian grandmother's knee, and famously brought Italian flavours to Gordon Ramsay's former Michelin-starred flagship restaurant at the Connaught Hotel. "Not so much – they more like clams and mussels and stuff like that. They're very traditional, the Italians – once they know what they're doing, they don't change much."

Crab vinaigrette with herbs

By Simon Hopkinson

This dish uses mainly white crab meat with a small amount of sauce made from the brown meat. Any sauce left over can either be turned into a mousse, set with a little gelatin, or added to soup made from broken-up crab shells.

White meat from a cooked 1.4-1.8kg crab
1 tablespoon chopped mixed herbs, to include dill, tarragon, chives, parsley and chervil
Juice of half lemon
A pinch of cayenne
2 tablespoons olive oil
Salt

For the sauce

Brown meat from a cooked 1.4-1.8kg crab
1 tablespoon tomato ketchup
Half tablespoon smooth Dijon mustard
Half tablespoon horseradish sauce
Juice of half lemon
1 teaspoon anchovy essence
2 teaspoons cognac
Salt and pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil

Mix the white crab meat with the herbs, lemon, cayenne and oil. Season to taste. In a blender, purée together all the sauce ingredients, except the olive oil, and pass through a fine sieve. Depending on the "wetness" of the brown meat, it may be necessary to thin the sauce with a little water. The ideal consistency should be like salad cream.

If you like to serve up neat plates of food, then divide the white crab meat into four portions and place in the middle of four plates, forming into circles with the help of a pastry cutter. Spoon the sauce in a swirl around the crab, and drizzle it with olive oil. If you prefer less-structured food, then serve the white meat in a bowl and the sauce separately.

Taken from 'Roast Chicken and Other Stories', Ebury Press

Crab linguine

By Angela Hartnett

One of the freshest and most delicious fish dishes you can have. The crab meat, chilli and garlic make a perfect combination.

Serves 4

900g brown crab, cooked
25g sea salt
315g dried linguine

Sauce

55ml olive oil
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
4 spring onions, finely chopped
Half a teaspoon fresh red chilli, finely chopped
275g picked fresh white crab meat
25ml dry white wine
1 tablespoon flat-leaf parsley, chopped
1 tablespoon basil, chopped
Salt and pepper

Dismantle the brown crab by removing the undercarriage. Discard the "dead man's fingers" and any white meat within the main shell. Put the brown crab meat aside to be frozen; this can be used to make crab on toast. Then crack the two large front claws: this is where the majority of the delicious white crab meat will be. Set on a metal tray and check for any shell by scraping the crab meat along the tray. Place in the fridge.

Bring a large pan of water to the boil, add sea salt and cook the linguine for 7–8 minutes, or according to the packet's instructions. Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a large, deep frying pan and add the garlic, spring onions and chilli. Fry lightly without colouring for one minute. Stir in the white crab meat and heat through for another minute. Add the wine to the pan and allow it to bubble and reduce completely.

When the linguine is cooked al dente, drain it and add to the crab mixture. Stir in the parsley and basil, and toss everything together to coat evenly. Season to taste and serve immediately.

Taken from 'The Great British Food Revival', Weidenfeld & Nicolson

Sport
Alexis Sanchez has completed a £35m move to Arsenal, the club have confirmed
sportGunners complete £35m signing of Barcelona forward
Voices
Poor teachers should be fearful of not getting pay rises or losing their job if they fail to perform, Steve Fairclough, headteacher of Abbotsholme School, suggested
voicesChris Sloggett explains why it has become an impossible career path
Sport
world cup 2014
Sport
Ray Whelan was arrested earlier this week
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
Arts and Entertainment
In a minor key: Keira Knightley in the lightweight 'Begin Again'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Celebrated children’s author Allan Ahlberg, best known for Each Peach Pear Plum
books
News
peopleIndian actress known as the 'Grand Old Lady of Bollywood' was 102
News
Wayne’s estate faces a claim for alleged copyright breaches
newsJohn Wayne's heirs duke it out with university over use of the late film star's nickname
Life and Style
It beggars belief: the homeless and hungry are weary, tortured, ghosts of people – with bodies contorted by imperceptible pain
lifeRough sleepers exist in every city. Hear the stories of those whose luck has run out
News
Mick Jagger performing at Glastonbury
people
Life and Style
fashionJ Crew introduces triple zero size to meet the Asia market demand
Sport
Santi Cazorla, Mikel Arteta and Mathieu Flamini of Arsenal launch the new Puma Arsenal kits at the Puma Store on Carnaby Street
sportMassive deal worth £150m over the next five years
Arts and Entertainment
Welsh opera singer Katherine Jenkins
musicHolyrood MPs 'staggered' at lack of Scottish artists performing
Life and Style
beautyBelgian fan lands L'Oreal campaign after being spotted at World Cup
Arts and Entertainment
Currently there is nothing to prevent all-male or all-female couples from competing against mixed sex partners at any of the country’s ballroom dancing events
Potential ban on same-sex partners in ballroom dancing competitions amounts to 'illegal discrimination'
News
business
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Sales Manager (Fashion and Jewellery), Paddington, London

    £45-£55k OTE £75k : Charter Selection: Major London International Fashion and ...

    Volunteer Digital Marketing Trustee needed

    Voluntary, reasonable expenses reimbursed: Reach Volunteering: Are you keen on...

    Java Swing Developer - Hounslow - £33K to £45K

    £33000 - £45000 per annum + 8% Bonus, pension: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: ...

    Corporate Events Sales Manager, Marlow,Buckinghamshire

    £30K- £40K pa + Commision £10K + Benefits: Charter Selection: Rapidly expandin...

    Day In a Page

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
    Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

    A writer spends a night on the streets

    Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
    Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
    Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

    Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

    Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
    Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

    Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

    This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
    Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

    Why did we stop eating whelks?

    Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
    10 best women's sunglasses

    In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

    From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice