It's not often that the dinner on your plate looks like something out of War of the Worlds. With their striking orange armoured bodies, complete with menacing studs, and long Meccano legs, spider crabs are undeniably alien. But if fisherman Rob Simmonds has his way, we'll soon be eating them as often as fish and chips.
There are certainly plenty of them, as I find when I venture out with Simmonds in his fishing boat on a stomach-churning swell off Teignmouth in Devon. The pots that he hauls in are packed with the Maia squinado, which scamper across the seabed in the thousands in May (hence the Latin name) like an invading army. Apparently, what these heaving piles of spiders get up to under water is nothing short of a mass orgy. But maybe that's no bad thing if it means that they are numerous and therefore much more sustainable than the fish served at your average chippie.
Until recently, British fishermen destroyed spider crabs as vermin, blaming them for fouling up their nets and gobbling other crustaceans. Then in the 1980s, the fishermen tapped into the lucrative continental market.
In Spain, for instance, centolla, as the spider crab is called there, is valued as highly as lobster. Spider crab baked in its shell in the oven is one of the Basque country's most highly prized dishes. It's not just the rich or gastronomically savvy who enjoy spider crab either – you'll find it in virtually any Spanish supermarket at reasonable prices.
Seek out spider crab in Britain, though, and you'll probably struggle. Unless you've eaten at specialist fish restaurants such as Mitch Tonks' Seahorse in Dartmouth, Nathan Outlaw in North Cornwall or Tom Aikens in London, most Brits are as likely to have tasted the sweet tender flesh of spider crab as they are to have eaten jellied eels or snails.
Although the waters around our island are teeming with these crustaceans, we seem to prefer to stick to the imported tuna and farmed salmon to which we're accustomed. More than half of our spider crabs are whisked straight to Spain and France while they're still alive, without even touching British soil.
Simmonds believes that could be about to change. He believes it must. "It's an absurd state of affairs," he says. "Spider crabs are one of the most sustainable seafoods, yet most people prefer to eat farmed salmon that's sprayed with insecticides and has fed on wild fish so it isn't sustainable. I'd like to see spider crab making a regular appearance on the British dinner table."
The reason it doesn't is unfamiliarity, he says. "People simply don't know how to cook or eat them." To put that right, Simmonds and his wife, Amanda, have set up a crab shack on the beach at Teignmouth, which offers, among other things, crab sandwiches and seafood platters that include an eye-catching spider crab. The response has been amazing, he says. "Once they have come to terms with the crab's scary appearance, people love it," he says. "They know they are eating it at its best and that it's been landed just a few hours earlier."
The sandwich I ate before we ventured out to sea was straightforward (and scrumptious). But like some others in the café, I am out of my depth when it comes to tackling the pinkish-orange beast that stares at me defiantly from atop a platter of glistening fruits de mer.
Simmonds comes to the rescue and shows me the drill. First you pull the body away from the legs and claws, in one single wrench at the socket. Then lever the body and carapace apart with your thumbs. The carapace will be full of gorgeous brown meat which you can scoop out. Turning to the body, or undercarriage, you need first to discard the lungs, aptly known as dead-man's fingers. You then reach the delicious white meat, which is when your feast begins in earnest. "The best meat, in my opinion, is actually the moist white meat inside the claws and legs," Simmonds says, demonstrating the gentle twist around the joints which, with luck, enables you to tease the fibrous white flesh out in one go. "Some restaurants provide hammers so you can smash the legs, but then you're likely to get bits of shell in your crab, which is a pain. This method is far better. You suck the meat out slowly."
It takes practice. But with meat like that, I'm happy to pull crabs apart – otherwise known as "picking" – until I've got it right. "Eating shellfish is a skill that, in this country, most of us have lost," Simmonds says. "When I'm not fishing, I spend much of my time simply teaching people to eat. I even plan to start running workshops."
This dissect-while-you-eat style of dining is fun, but there's no denying it can be messy and time-consuming, too. "On the continent, people are used to getting their hands dirty as they eat and don't mind spending hours at the table. Here, it's different," Simmonds says. "We had one customer who said, 'I'm a public schoolboy, I'm not used to doing things like this'. We're going to start offering people bibs so they don't worry about the mess. Once they try it, though, they love it. It becomes a real occasion."
If you're cooking at home you may prefer to buy the crab already picked, because there's no doubt that picking it is a fiddly job. (In his book, Fish, chef Tom Aikens describes how at a commercial kitchen in which he worked the job of picking the spider crab was the ultimate punishment for underlings who had displeased the boss.)
I'll be honest with you, though: spider crab is not easy to find. The best place to start is your local fishmonger. Ask them to get some in for you and insist it's pot-caught, which avoids by-catch so it's the most sustainable method. Don't expect to find it in the supermarkets (although some now sell pasteurised brown crab); their priority is shelf life, yours is freshness.
You may be surprised by how inexpensive spider crab is. Simmonds sells whole cooked crabs for a fiver and reckons you could feed at least two from that, provided you pad it out with some vegetables or cos lettuce. You'll pay more if someone else has done the painstaking work of picking the crab, but it still won't break the bank. A dressed crab (a crab shell filled with the picked meat) makes a wonderful cheat's Saturday lunch.
Amazingly, spider-crab meat needs nothing added to taste superb. If you must add something, dip the claw meat into a pot of mayonnaise mixed with a dash of Dijon mustard. Oven-cooked crab can be divine, too. Bryn Williams, chef-patron at Odette's in London, pops his spider-crab meat into a lasagne that has become legendary. "Spider crab is sweeter and meatier than brown crab," he says. "It's also cheaper. So we should definitely be eating more of it."
Crab also stands up well to a spot of devilling: combine brown and white meat with vinegar, Worcestershire sauce and mustard and bake it in the shell (see above for full instructions).
With such a delicacy abundant in our seas, is it time to befriend these aliens of the deep as our continental friends do? We may be missing out on a treat if we don't. And knowing we can eat them with a clean conscience could make them taste even better.
Crab Shack on the beach, Teignmouth, Devon TQ84 8BY
01626 777956 seafoodhouse.co.uk
Devilled spider crab in the shell
by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall
Ingredients to serve 2
About 50g unsalted butter, plus a little extra for dotting on the breadcrumbs
1 large onion, finely chopped
2 tablespoons cider vinegar
1 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
1 heaped teaspoon English mustard
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper or a generous shake of Tabasco sauce
200ml double cream
2 cooked medium spider crabs (about
1-1.5kg), brown and white meat picked out, shells cleaned
A squeeze of lemon juice
50g fresh white breadcrumbs
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
You might think of crab meat as a very delicate thing, not suited to the rough and tumble of vinegar, mustard, chilli and other devilling ingredients – but it has a robust depth that can easily hold its own in a dish like this.
Baking the crab in its shell gives you the bonus of an extra shot of flavour. Crustacean shells are formed from concentrated proteins and sugars, and the heat of the oven causes them to release a nutty, rich flavour. Put a large, heavy-based pan over a medium heat and add the butter. Toss in the chopped onion and sweat gently until softened but not coloured – about 10 minutes should do it. Pour in the sherry, let it boil for a few seconds, then add the vinegar and Worcestershire sauce and let them come to a boil, too.
Stir in the mustard and cayenne pepper or Tabasco, then add the cream. Let the mixture come to a simmer, cook for 2 minutes or until it just starts to thicken slightly, then remove from the heat.
Fold the crab meat into the sauce. Season well with salt and pepper and a little lemon juice, then spoon the mixture into the cleaned crab shells or individual gratin dishes. Don't try to fill the shells up, just make a good mound of the mixture in the middle. Sprinkle with the breadcrumbs and dot a little butter over the top.
Place the crabs on a baking tray and bake in an oven preheated to 190°C/Gas Mark 5 for 20-25 minutes, until the breadcrumbs are golden and the crab bubbling devilishly. Serve piping hot, with doorsteps of thickly buttered toast and a green salad.
Devilled crab on toast
To ring the changes and speed things up a bit, you can make a lovely version of this dish with the bread on the bottom, in the form of toast, rather than on top, as breadcrumbs. It cuts out the baking stage, too.
After folding the crab meat into the sauce, simply pile it on hot buttered toast. A scaled-down version of this makes an excellent canapé: put generous teaspoonfuls of the hot (or cold) saucy crab on small squares of toast or little crostini and serve with drinks.
Taken from 'The River Cottage Fish Book' by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Nick Fisher, published by Bloomsbury, paperback £20, hardback £35