Mitch Tonks runs RockFish Grill & Seafood Market in Clifton, Bristol. He is an award-winning chef, restaurateur and food writer and has two other seafood restaurants in Dartmouth.
Here’s the Catch
With sustainable fishing top on the agenda, each month new flavour columnist and seafood specialist Mitch Tonks cooks up a storm with his seasonal fish of choice…
Living by the coast means that I am able to get out on the water (when there is space in my diary) and enjoy the pleasures of fishing and sailing. When the weather is just right there is nothing quite like it, sailing out from Brixham round Start Point to Dartmouth is a delight and so beautiful. Now I know that is hard to do in Bristol but being on the river is equally good and there is always plenty of activity with ferries and pleasure boats on the water. The sunshine and the water bring out a real need in me to enjoy seafood, must be memories of the Mediterranean that I want to relive, lobster a la plancha in Menorca or spider crab in Venice. In the UK we have an abundance of crab and there are none finer than those from the well managed fisheries of South Devon. So much of our crab is exported but at RockFish we have this delicious shellfish delivered up from the coast daily to have as a perfect starter for our Sunday roasts or served whole, cracked and on ice with a pot of mayo for dunking the chunks into.
I have spent many summer afternoons at the beach or the park or in the garden and freshly boiling a crab for a few minutes, then after it has cooled use the rocks on the beach or crackers to crack the crab and eat it with a pot of mayo – that’s about as fresh as it gets. It’s an amazing experience and something that we can do living on this island surrounded by some of the most amazing fish and shellfish in the world.
Crab from South Devon has a delicious flavour and being in good supply makes an economical choice as well as a fantastically tasty one. You can’t go wrong with a good crab sandwich, probably on thick, soft, white bread with lots of brown crabmeat, fresh cucumber and black pepper. Crab sarnies used to be such an institution when visiting the coast but I think they haven’t had quite the same appeal to a new, younger generation unlike the ubiquitous prawn sandwich and I wonder why. Perhaps it is to do with the decline in the high street fishmonger or a certain squeamishness when it comes to some shellfish. So for all those of you out there who don’t want to miss this fabulous British food, here’s how to prepare it plus a recipe that is often overlooked for it’s simplicity but should be back on every dinner party menu and supper club going in my opinion! Try it, let me know what you think.
For a 2kg crab, bring a large pan of water to the boil, add a good handful of rock salt and then boil the crab for 15-18 minutes. Drain and stand the crab on its nose to cool.
When cool enough to handle, turn the crab on its back. With the back facing you, tuck your hands around the side of the shell and force the carapace away with your thumbs. This can feel awkward but a bit of brute force usually does the trick. Here you will see the feathery ‘dead man’s fingers’ sticking up at the edge of the body. They are harmless but give them a tug and discard them. With your thumb press on the stomach sac that is behind the eyes of the crab in the top shell, this should easily break away. Scrape the delicious brown meat out with a spoon, place in a bowl and mix with a fork. Pull off the claws and legs giving them all a good crack with the back of a heavy knife then cut the carapace into chunks.
Break the claws and take out the white meat from the thick end. Use the back of a heavy bladed knife to crack open the remaining claw and the pincers. Remove all the white meat and flake into a bowl. To remove the meat from the body of the crab, take a sharp knife, cut the crab body in half then in half again.
If this is not for you, our fishmonger will do all the preparation. Just text him on 07929 444767 and tell him you want a freshly boiled crab to pick up and he’ll do it for you on the day – crab to go!
Potted South Devon Crab
250g brown meat
150g white meat
splash of cognac
tsp ground fennel seeds
1 crumbled dried chilli
100g melted butter + 50g for pouring on top
juice & zest 1⁄2 lemon
Melt the butter, stir in the crabmeat, cognac, the fennel, lemon juice, chilli and zest season and taste and then put into ramekins and pour a little melted butter over the top. Sprinkle with fennel fronds, chill well and serve with toast.