“They’re here,” says Dad, interrupting my vital early evening viewing of some obscure Olympic sport or another. I stay in my seat. ‘They’ are two brown crabs and a lobster, caught off the Dorset coast sometime today, and my guess is they’re going to be pissed off. Yes, they’re still alive. And somebody needs to make them not so. As that somebody would appear to be me, and I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing, I’m more than a little apprehensive.
If you’ve never dealt with live crustacea, the internet is, as always, a veritable hive of information. Also as always, some is more useful than the rest. I discover that lobsters don’t die through ageing, only by disease, fishing or fighting. This possibly explains why they’re such feisty buggers. Of course I’ll fight you! I’m never going to get old! En garde! It’s not helpful in my quest to find out how to convert it from the live pinchy thing in my fridge to a dead yummy thing on my table, though. I continue searching. When I find that it’s possible to hypnotise them my day is made, but for the traditionalists there are other ways to deal with them.
If you worked in Giorgio Locatelli’s kitchen, for instance, you could knock them out with a Crustastun, a device that looks suspiciously like a repurposed photocopier. Hardier souls (or those who don’t cook lobsters for a living) drown them in fresh water or stick a sharp implement into their central nervous system. The most brutal just chuck them straight into boiling stock with no preparation. Putting them into cold storage to slow down their nervous systems before you do anything seems to be universally recommended whatever you do. It’s all very interesting, but my procrastination doesn’t change the fact that at some point these beasts are going to go from living to dead at my hands. Dragging my heels, I head to the kitchen.
To my guilty relief, Ma’s beaten me to it and is standing in the middle of the room trying to weigh one of the crabs. He’s big. Bloody big. He’s been on ice for his journey from Dorset to Somerset so he’s calm, but beads of condensation are already appearing as hot kitchen air hits cold shell, so he won’t be that way for long. He looks ridiculous on his back on the scales. I take a photo. Ma grabs a skewer while muttering something about ‘that guy on the Guardian website’. She’s looking somewhat manic and it occurs to me that she might never have done this before either.
According to Tim Hayward, it’s as simple as finding the crab’s tail, flipping it up and skewering through into its central nervous system before stabbing it between the eyes for good measure. Gruesome. Also? Easier said than done. As Ma scrabbles around with her skewer his tail is clamped so hard to his underside that it’s as if it’s glued there. Mind you, I’d do the same if I had a proven weak spot, so I can’t really blame him.
It’s time for Plan B. On my travels around the world of crustacea via the internetz I found that Shanghai hairy crabs (yes! They’re a thing!) were subdued by scrubbing, so we try scratching his stomach. He goes ballistic and starts snapping his pincers at us while weebling his stalky little eyes about. We retreat to a safe distance. He eyes us from the counter with menace on his face. In the battle between crab and human, the crustacean has won the first round.
The humans consult. “Maybe try his back?” I suggest. It’s worth a try, and I don’t think we could piss him off any more than we have done already. Nodding at the wisdom of this, Ma sneaks up behind him, grabs him with a be-tea-towelled hand and starts scratching his shell. Amazingly it works. He stops waving his claws about and after a couple of minutes his legs are completely relaxed, offering no resistance when poked with an exploratory finger. Result! It’s time for the moment of truth. Off comes the lid of the stockpot, in goes the crab, and it isn’t long before he’s sleeping for good.
Flushed with our success, Ma and I decide to tackle the lobster. She’s on safer ground with this one, having prepped her fair share in her years as a chef. She starts fishing around in the knife drawer for a good, solid instrument of death, but the hippy in me rebels. “Why don’t we try hypnotism instead?”
(You really should follow that hypnotism link, by the way. It’s deliciously silly. Make sure you’ve got the sound on, though. Go on – I’ll wait …
… Hello again! Yes, I did warn you it was silly. Good, though, don’t you think? Now – back to the story.)
Putting the knife down on the counter with a crestfallen expression, Ma agrees to give the hypnotism a try. “The stock’s nearly boiling, though. This had better be quick.” She starts to stroke the lobster’s back. His antennae droop and his tail curls under. Unbelievable! The hippy shit works! We turn him on his nose and he balances, just like the internet told us he would, blowing bubbles as he does so. We even have time for photos before he goes into a second pot. God, this is easy-peasy!
The first crab has had its allotted time for boiling, so out he comes for a quick rinse under the tap. The air in the kitchen fills with the scent of hot sand and seashells and we drop him into a bowl to go back into the fridge. His claws fold neatly in front of him, and he looks – well – good enough to eat.
Time to get his mate.
This one’s bigger than the one we’ve just cooked, and feisty with it. As we stick him on the scales, he waves his claws with intent and glares at us with beady-eyed fury. His tail is just as firmly clamped to his stomach as the other one’s was, so there’ll be no quick dispatch here, either. Ma starts to scratch his back. It subdues him a bit, but he’s not going into full catatonia like the other one did. Five minutes of back massage later he’s dozy, but not out.
Opinion is divided as to whether crabs feel pain. All I can say is, whether it’s muscle spasms or sentience, a crab that’s not sufficiently sleepy thrashes as you put it into boiling water. At best you will be splashed with hot stock, and the crab’s legs will fall off as you cook it. At worst, it’s potentially inhumane. Put it this way: I won’t be doing it like that again.
After the trauma of boiling the beasts alive, shelling them is painless, if gross. As I chop through the lobster’s head, green vileness explodes all over the knife. It looks like Slimer from Ghostbusters has been in and had a field day. Apparently you can eat this bit, but I decide to leave it in the ‘discard’ pile anyway, along with the genuinely inedible (as opposed to just icky-looking) bits. Dad, meanwhile, grabs a wine bottle and shows me a sneaky trick for getting the meat out of the legs. Place the leg on a board, open end facing away from you, and roll the bottle up along it. As you do so, the meat squidges out like toothpaste from a tube. No poking about with skewers and breaking bits off halfway inside the leg – just a perfect, shell-less, delicious bit of lobster.
The crabs are far fiddlier to deal with. Who would have thought the brown beasts to have had so much meat in them? At first, after scooping out what I can see in the shell I look at the pitiful pile and am disappointed. Then I pull a leg joint away from the body and realise that I’ve hit the mother-load. An hour later I’ve got cramped fingers from holding the skewer, and hands covered in crab meat which, given earlier events, I can’t quite bring myself to eat.
Tomorrow is another day, though.