Consider the jellied eel: pale, tripe-like, quivering with the suggestion it might taste as bad as it looks. A dish that divides opinion, yet one close to London’s heart. For centuries the city looked to the Thames for food: eels, cheap and plentiful, were what it found.
Not so today. The European eel is critically endangered, with an estimated population one-fifth of what it was in the mid-20th century. European Union directives have restricted eel fishing on the Thames to a few licensed operators.
But the river, never short of ideas, has another stock for our consideration: the Chinese mitten crab. While recorded eel numbers have fallen, its population of mitten crabs—so named for their furry claws—has exploded, aided by decreasing pollution levels and water flow rates. In the UK they are regarded as an invasive species, extremely adaptive, capable of establishing colonies anywhere; in southeast Asia they are considered a delicacy worth up to $40 (USD) per crab. The mitten crab market is worth $1.25bn a year.
So why aren’t we eating them? Why does the Environment Agency not issue fishing licences for this prized and abundant food source? Why aren’t we casting those tubs of jellified eel into the flames and gorging on succulent, all-you-can-eat crab?
It’s not that simple, explains Dave Pearce, one of the last professional eel fishermen on the Thames. Pearce, who often finds mitten crabs in his fyke nets, is working with the Natural History Museum to determine the risks of legalising crab fishing in the Thames. There are concerns that a recognised market might encourage people to spread the invasive crustaceans elsewhere.
Crab nets could also catch eels, potentially causing further damage to the threatened species. Paul Clark, who researches these crustacea for the Environment Agency, is developing a crab net that would allow eels to slip free. For as long as eel stocks stand to suffer from mitten crab fishing, he says, it is unlikely it will be legalised.
Even if catching the crabs were legal, we wouldn’t all be eating them, he adds. They are valued in Asia primarily because of their sexual organs, a trend unlikely to catch on with British diners.
All good points, but has no one considered how delicious this crab might be?
The uncharitably long British winter delayed this year’s eel fishing season, so Pearce could not furnish me with any of his by-catch crabs. (Like the cobbler who goes barefoot, he eats neither the crabs nor the eels he catches.) Chinatown—where they moonlight under the name “Shanghai hairy crab”—had none either.
I finally found the fabled creature in the industrial docks near Woolwich, at a Chinese wholesalers. Five specimens were sold to me at delicacy price, which I had bargained for, and alive, which I had not. I cycled the six miles home convinced their claws were tickling me through my rucksack.
First, I steamed them. After 10 minutes, their dark green carapaces had turned a rufous red and the legs could be pulled easily from the body. Next I used a rolling pin—the Chinese method—to squeeze out the flesh. It was intensive work for scant reward: five crabs yielded a small handful of protein.
The taste, however, was worth it. A sweet kick of fresh shellfish, followed by an unexpected meatiness, rich and warm. Both sea and earth were present. It was vaguely, pleasantly ferrous—a halo encircling the main body of flavour.
I made the shells and the remaining meat into a bisque, which, in a nod to liquor sauce, I thickened with flour instead of cream. I thought the soup was good, but I didn’t need converting. So I packed a thermos flask and took it to Graham Poole.
Poole, with his brother Rick, owns Manze’s, a stalwart of Cockney cuisine. Their Tower Bridge shop has sold eels and pies since 1902, when Billingsgate fish market was just up the road. Today Manze’s gets their eels from Holland—“can’t get enough Thames eels, that’s the trouble”—which they poach in salted water, skimming the “bloom” (the slime on eels’ skins) from the surface. They add all-spice and pimento and sell them jellied (set in gelatin) or stewed.
Business, he says, is “getting quieter on the eel side” due to changing tastes and rising prices. He praised the stewed eel—“people automatically think eels are rubbery, but it’s a very delicate fish, lovely in liquor with a bit of chilli vinegar”—but confessed, like Pearce, to a revulsion for the jellied version. “I’ve never tried them,” he says. “I can’t bring myself to eat them.”
And the mitten crab soup? “Very nice.” Then, sensing my next question, he adds: “No, we wouldn’t sell them. Why make a lot of work for yourself? Also, you can’t change tradition.” Adding vegetarian food to the menu 10 years ago was enough of a shock to his customers, he jokes.
So no Cockney endorsement for the Thames’ latest offering?
“Let’s just say,” the diplomatic Poole concludes, “the Chinese can sleep peacefully.”
And so can our mitten crabs—at least for now.