It came as a shock to me to discover that crab and lobster were considered by some to be an up-market, posh food. I was seventeen, and had just come to college in Dublin.
All of my childhood summers had been spent at the Irish seaside where shellfish was no more than the seasonal food you ate at that time of year. Visiting our cousins near Caherdaniel on the Ring of Kerry, supper came from the sea. My uncle would row out to lift the lobster pots and remove any crabs or lobsters, or throw line of feathers into the sea to catch mackerel. While my aunt would prepare salad and dressings in the kitchen, he would boil water on a primus stove outdoors, cook the shellfish, and then take them away to a conveniently flat-topped boulder where he’d remove the meat from the shell. He’d return with a platter of crab meat, crab claws and lobster meat. We ate these with our fingers, sitting on the grass, looking out at the Bull and Cow rocks on the horizon. As you do. Or did.
Not knowing that I was growing up in a John Hinde postcard, I never thought to apprentice myself to him, to find out how to do the work. So I sailed into adulthood having to rely on trips to seaside towns for an occasional treat of fresh crab claws. Only recently it dawned on me that I was indulging in learned incompetence. Books and You-Tube videos were OK, but there had to be someone who would teach me to do it so I could learn ‘ag glún an mháistir’ (at the knee of the master).
‘Ask and you shall receive’ is the mantra.
Peter Caviston runs his family’s business in Glasthule, near the seaside town of Sandycove, best known for year-round swimming in the ‘forty foot’ and for being the location for the opening pages of James Joyce’s Ulysses.
Peter is a legend who thinks, creates, has ideas and brings them to fruition (see above). He manages to combine his love of life, sailing, fun, craic, music with a passion for good food provenance, old fashioned hospitality and impeccable customer service. It’s in his bones- his father has been selling fish on this site for the past fifty years.
I e-mailed him with my request. After all, he worst he might say was ‘no’. His response was immediate and generous-
“ Bring along a few mates. I’ll ring you next week and give you a date”. Sorted!
Saturday was one of the most beautiful days this summer. Early morning sun sparkled on Dublin Bay as I drove to Glasthule. Peter greeted six of us warmly, amused us with a stream of consciousness and began.
First up was lobster.
At Cavistons they prefer to steam rather than boil them. They taste better and the meat is easier to separate from the shell. He doesn’t use a hammer- a heavy spoon will break the shell with less harm to the tender meat within. Peter demonstrated the knife skills for breaking the lobster in two, and showed us the bits you discard. After that, the best counsel is simplicity. Have a simple butter based sauce, or a well flavoured mayonnaise, some fresh local salad on the side and new potatoes… ‘balls of flour’.
“When seafood is this fresh, the less you interfere with it, the better”
Crab is a bit more work. Using crab which was boiled already, Peter gave us an anatomy lesson, showing us the difference between male and female crabs. While regaling us with stories, he deftly dismantled the crabs, cracked the claws, discarded the inedible bits. We were all invited to taste the coral, brown meat from the cavity and white meat from the claws. He then made a dressed crab in different ways, and passed it around for tasting. My favourite was the traditional one- crab meat with some breadcrumbs, chopped parsley, some Worcestershire sauce, mayonnaise and lemon juice. The claws were perfect with nothing at all added.
As we sat in Caviston’s restaurant, the street outside was busy as morning shoppers came to buy their weekend provisions. Through the open door of the restaurant, friends of Peter’s popped their heads in for a bit of banter and were rewarded with a crab claw or two. During a break in the lesson, we popped into the shop next door to pick up a few crabs and lobsters for ourselves. After all, you have to do your homework, don’t you?
Lobster was my choice, as family were coming to dinner that evening. I’ll buy crab next week and go to work on it when I’m not expecting company.
It couldn’t have been more simple. Cavistons sell lobsters already steamed and chilled. Working on a table outside the kitchen door, I divided them in two lengthwise, removed the meat and replaced it in the shells which I had washed under running water. They were grilled with a knob of butter and served with Romesco sauce, salads and steamed Maris Piper potatoes. We chilled some Riesling from Sybille Kuntz in the Mosel region- a perfect flavour match for lobster.
I did have a plan to plate it out beautifully and take photographs, but the seagulls in my family scuppered that one.
No sooner was it out of the oven than they swooped, dipping it in Romesco sauce or eating it au naturel. Cutlery was redundant. Small, narrow shells were sucked clean of meat.
A sauce made using the technique to make mayonnaise. An emulsion is made of egg yolk and olive oil, with ground roasted hazelnuts, roasted garlic cloves, chillies and tomatoes added. A rich flavour develops after a few hours refrigeration. Follow the link above to Delia Smith’s website for the recipe.
Crab and Lobster are at their best right now. The seas around our long island coastline are bountiful. Distribution is good all over the country and fishmongers who don’t regularly stock crustaceans can certainly source them to order. Asian food markets often have boxes of live crabs at a reasonable price. Now that I’ve learned how to tackle them, it’s only a matter of practice to get faster at it. There’ll be no shortage of help either….fresh food high in protein, vitamins and minerals doesn’t get any more delicious than this.
Thanks to Peter Caviston and his staff in Cavistons Food Emporium for inviting us to learn how to cook crab and lobster, and for making us so welcome.