Updated: Dec 3, 2020
"Have you ever watched a crab on the shore crawling backward in search of the Atlantic Ocean, and missing? That's the way the mind of man operates."
H. L. Mencken (1880-1956)
We are very fortunate in the UK to have such a thriving collection of crab fisheries that we can enjoy crab all year round. At the very least we have an abundance of brown, Cromer, spider, velvet and shore crabs. Naturally, those in Norfolk will insist that Cromer crabs are the best, those in the south will champion the brown crab. As a nation we can take our pick and, in doing so, support their respective fisheries. Such is the quality of UK crab that there is a hungry export market for our produce but one which increasingly sounds like it could be overheating.
I can't honestly say I remember crab being so widely available in the 1990s into the 2000s but that may just be because I wasn't so attentive to the question then. That's not to say crabs weren't on sale in fishmongers at the time, I'm sure they were, but I can honestly say that during that period, when on holidays to Spain, France, India and others, I found crab on the menu something very exciting and perhaps even unusual. So that does suggest a novelty possibly arising from rarity. Crab has been available on the market stall since the day it first came and I have been buying it from the start and even more regularly since the picking started being done for us. As it stands now we can find dressed crab and tubs of crab meat in many supermarkets so it certainly can't be said it is not in front of us.
I've no idea why I decided that coleslaw might be a carrier of crab meat. It was likely the mayonnaise connection but as is often the case, retrospective research shows I hadn't been the first to conceive of the idea, so maybe I had seen something somewhere at some point. For a recipe I came up with a selection of ingredients and flavourings that I thought might work and experimented quite extensively. I'm really pleased to say I concluded it was at its best at its simplest.
Of course, one element in the ingredient conundrum was the constituents of the slaw itself. White cabbage is the classic brassica (for a forensic examination of coleslaw ingredients see this article by Felicity Cloake for The Guardian) in a slaw. But as much as I enjoy appreciating seafood in season do I enjoy the same with veg in season. Kohlrabi is a vegetable I love - I am always excited when it arrives in my weekly veg box from Riverford - but not one whose use is widely broadcast. Personally I love it raw but also frequently roast it as a change from potato. And it has quite a long season, roughly occupying the second half of the year. Bulbous like a root, kohlrabi is in fact the root of a brassica, deriving its name from the German for 'turnip cabbage', and I found it to work perfectly in this little creation.
During the (first) lockdown period I had more lunches to eat at home than had been normal for a long time and, looking for variety, I harked back to the classic baked spud (does anyone remember Spudulike? My mate when I was at uni used to insist on pronouncing the name "spud-oo-lick-a"). Served with a tangy salad, a baked spud topped with crabslaw is a tasty and satisfying lunch.
Of course the better the mayonnaise the better the slaw, but let's leave it at that. I posted my favourite recipe for home made mayonnaise in "Poached Fillet of Sea Bass with Broad Beans and Dill Mayonnaise", which originally came from Michel Roux's book "Sauces: Savoury and Sweet". Because this particular slaw does not contain onion the quantity of chives is substantial, but this can be left to discretion. Parsley is also rather nice chopped and mixed into this recipe and for a touch of fragrance a little tarragon fits rather nicely. A grating of nutmeg or a pinch of ground mace is also worth a try.
Ingredients (For 2 spuds)
150g white crab meat
150g peeled and grated carrot
150g peeled and grated kohlrabi
1 tbsp white wine vinegar
½-1 tsp fine salt
½-1 tsp caster sugar
3-4 tbsp best-quality mayonnaise (ideally home made)
2 tbsp chopped chives
Salt (may not be required)
Freshly ground pepper (white is particularly good here, but black is fine)
Put the grated carrot and kohlrabi in a sieve set over a bowl and sprinkle over the vinegar, salt and sugar. Mix together with your hands and leave for an hour to allow the excess moisture from the vegetables to drain away. After the hour, squeeze any additional moisture out of the vegetables. Taste a little. If the flavour is too salty for your palate (bearing in mind the crab is quite a sweet flavour) you can give the contents of the sieve a quick shower under the running cold tap and squeeze again.
Put the drained carrot and kohlrabi in a mixing bowl and fold in the white crab meat quite gently so as not to break up larger chunks too much. Add the chives and taste and adjust for seasoning (it should benefit from at least a good twist of pepper)
Serve at room temperature, especially if atop a spud.
"Sauces: Savoury and Sweet", Michel Roux (2009), pp. 82: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Sauces-Savoury-Sweet-Michel-Roux/dp/1844006972
"How to make perfect coleslaw", Felicity Cloake, The Guardian, accessed 5 October 2020
"Poached Fillet of Sea Bass with Broad Beans and Dill Mayonnaise", Bute Street Seafoodie