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