Blue swimmer crab: a summer celebration

John Susman urges diners and restaurateurs alike to put a clawful of this coastal crustacean on their tables this sunny season.

Digging into a Chesapeake Bay blue swimming crab at a Maryland ‘Crab House’ is not dining – at least not in the traditional sense. No one sets a plate in front of you with a meticulously composed tableau of seafood, microgreens and perhaps a ‘foam’ of sauce, a ‘skid mark’ of starch or a ‘soil’ of seasoning, each element perfectly in its place.

No, here a waiter unceremoniously dumps a bucket of steamed crabs on a table covered in butchers paper and leaves you to your own devices. It’s a moment of truth for many: just you and a recently deceased crustacean, whose sharp armour and prickly pinchers must be removed and picked clean to reach that sweet inner meat.

A meal designed for intimate hand-on-crustacean action, this is a regional, seasonal celebration like no other, and certainly nothing the like of which we have here in Australia.

This is real water to plate dining. Culinary tourism supported and celebrated by locals as much as by the tens of thousands of tourists who flock to the region to get their hands into a crab or 10.

This experience reminded me that as a country which produces some really excellent blue crabs, and where produce-based cuisine is at the height of fashion, why is it we don’t seem to offer something a simple and delicious as whole crabs – whether they are in a shack in Shark Bay or in a diner in Darlinghurst?

For some diners, perhaps many, think picking crabs isn’t worth the effort. The work-to-reward ratio, they’ll argue, is all out of whack: they could spend ten minutes breaking down a crab only to end with a small, disappointing pile of meat.

I get this, and I don’t get it.

Those who crab about picking crab place too much emphasis on the prize, as if the sole reason to assemble around a picnic table is to stuff your face with the delicate, ivory flesh. In a sense, the anti-pickers resemble those diners who measure the value of their meal only by the volume of it.

For restaurateurs, is it because the concept of serving a simple steamed crab is just too simple, perhaps the craft skills of the kitchen can’t be justly serviced by such a straight up dish?

For me, it’s hard to forget the absolute pleasure to be gained, sitting on the beach on the West Coast of South Australia dropping just caught blue swimmer crabs into a 44 gallon drum of boiling seawater, taking them out after five minutes and tearing them apart to extract the insanely delicious meat.

With summer on us and the holiday season ahead, maybe it’s worth thinking about offering customers the hands on experience and absolute delight that can only come from eating a whole blue swimmer crab.

One of Australia’s most prolifically caught crabs, they are found throughout most of Australia’s coastline. The commercial blue swimmer crab fisheries of Shark Bay, in North West WA, Hervey Bay in Queensland, Wallis Lake in NSW and the Spencer Gulf in SA, make up the majority of the harvest and also happen to be fabulous holiday destinations!

Caught year round, the blue swimmer crab tends to be in its most bountiful volumes and good eating condition from October to April, making it an ideal summer holiday crustacean option.

The blue swimmer crab vary in size. Their last pair of legs are modified paddles, which propel them through the water over their favoured habitat of sandy or weedy bottoms in bays, estuaries and intertidal areas up to about 60 metres in depth.

The blue swimmer crab doesn’t live long out of water and is one of the few crabs sold green (raw) and dead, although many are offered already cooked, having been dealt with directly by the fishermen on the boat from live.

A ferocious scavenger, the blue swimmer is renown for aggressive feeding, delivering a consistent, sweet, clean flavoured meat which is characterised by its large generous body meat, and long claw and leg meat.

The blue swimmer crab is one of the easiest crabs for the amateur and professional alike to pick, making the proposition of buying or serving whole crabs an easier option than most other species.

Maybe there is something in the Chesapeake Crab Shack concept – we could give it a try here over summer – or at least give blue swimmer crabs a go as they are seasonal, regional and delicious.

John Susman is the director of the seafood industry agency, Fishtales. For more views, insights and understanding of the seafood industry, visit thefishtale.com.au.