It was a trip to Achill Island that inspired me to further exertions in my efforts to provide myself with a feed of fresh crab claws.
We had driven, taking the rather flat coast road on the north side of the island rather than the more interesting Atlantic Drive with its cliffs and coves and its winding spiral of a road. That is a route for a fine day, a way that ought not be travelled until one can enjoy it at its very best. Then it is among the finest journeys to be found anywhere, though still not one for the faint-hearted driver. As it was, an unseasonably keen wind scattered cold showers before it, bringing them in from the southwest, where a great grey morass that would reach land by evening hid the sea-horizon.
The north side of Achill offers shelter from these prevailing winds and even if the parts of it that can be driven are not scenically comparable to the south the hospitality is as warm as anywhere. We called into the Strand Hotel in Dugort, where we shared a bowl of the most delicious crab claws, sweet and succulent, bursting with taste and flavour and basking in a rich sauce of garlic butter. Who could ask for more?
Well, if they can do it, so can I! Accordingly, another low tide excursion to the rocky coastline below Roonagh Quay yielded a small harvest of edible crabs. Hauled out from their homes in the seaweed they blew bubbles and glared ferociously at such an outrage. Into the bucket they went, where they scuttled for a while before clutching each other in what appeared to be a consolatory embrace. I felt sorry for them then, but it was only a fleeting emotion. Taste buds took over. The only remission for my captive crustaceans was a handful of seaweed, that they might hide from the light of day and spend their last hours in comforting darkness.
In this country it is the claws of these, the edible crab, which are served up in pubs and restaurants. Elsewhere, people are less choosy. In Spain the velvet swimming crab is extremely popular and viewed with gastronomic delight. To my mind, though, the work needed to extract a miniscule amount of meat from the thickly-armoured claws of this creature is such that one might be driven by extreme hunger even to contemplate the endeavour. The velvet swimmer is safe, at least from my predatory eye. Others feel that the rewards are worth the effort. I once met a pair of continental gentlemen who were fishing with a drop net from the pier at Mulranny. A fillet of mackerel tethered to the middle of the net lured numerous common shore crabs, ranging in size from a diminutive inch to as much as six inches across the carapace. Having once tried to make a meal of these myself, I knew what lay ahead of this enterprising duo. The flavour is full, certainly, but that is all one might expect from these thinly-fleshed animals.
Crabs of one sort or another are so commonly encountered by those who frequent the seashore it is easy to take them for granted. Yet, as is the case with so many other things, there is so much more to them than readily meets the eye or greets the palate.
Male and female only come together when the female is in an undressed state, that is, when she has shed her old, outgrown shell and before the new, underlying one has properly hardened. Fertilisation of the eggs takes place externally, and the female carries them with her in a brood pouch on her underside, also known as her ‘purse’. Even before they hatch the baby crabs go through two larval stages.
On hatching, the crab is still a larva, but now a free-swimming one called a zoae larva that joins the plankton layer. Looking nothing like the creature it will become, this infant crab stands very little chance of surviving. It is only after several moults and via a transitional phase called a megalop that it starts to look and behave as it will for the rest of its life, which may be as long as ten or 12 years.
Through the summer countless millions of zoea larvae enter the marine food chain. No more survive than there is food for, and those that don’t will provide food for a lot of other things. Some of those that do will provide food for me.
- John Shelley