’Tis the season to be jolly, especially now that one is again allowed to pursue, catch and kill that most delicious creature known as the crayfish. Some also call it the West Coast Rock Lobster, while we locals prefer the Afrikaans name “kreef”. Or for the scientific types, Jasus Lalandii
The crayfish season opened last week, giving us men of the sea the opportunity to pluck a few of the spiny, feisty crustaceans from their dark caves beneath the ocean’s surface. This requires knowledge of the sea, an ability to hold a long breath while diving deep, as well as stealth and guile to grasp the crayfish while they are peering from their holes. Once the little buggers know that the man in the rubber wetsuit is not a bunny-hugging Marine Biologist but a hungry guy looking for some seafood lunch, the crayfish will hot-claw it to the inner sanctums of their rocky hiding-places, never to be seen again.
But not even the stealthiest crayfish is a patch on my forty years of diving experience, and last week-end I reached my limit of four crayfish in two dives.
A live crayfish flapping its tail and wriggling its spiny body parts is a thing of beauty, especially if you know it is going to be eaten within 30 minutes. Still, I am fascinated by how many of my fellow cray-fishermen spoil the moment through an incorrect cooking technique.
The first mistake is to throw the living crayfish into a pot of boiling water. This act implies ultimate freshness of the end-product along with a bit of macho showmanship. Leave that crap to the Orientals and their eating of still-beating snake hearts – by plunging the wriggling crayfish into the pot, one is inducing two factors disallowing the culinary experience from reaching full potential.
First, the terror of being engulfed by boiling water is not likely to cause the crayfish to drift into a peaceful, relaxing sleep reminiscing about the early tunes of Nat King Cole. Seconds before dying, the creature is going to pull its tail and legs as close to its carapace as possible, instinctively trying to protect the inner body-parts. And so it dies, all scrunched up requiring the eater to pluck, pull and force the shell from the flesh which is inconveniently displeasing.
Secondly, by dumping the animal into water for the 15 or so minutes it requires to cook, you are just waterlogging your lunch. That crayfish has been working for years to store up sweet, marine flavours and produce delicate tasting juices for your eating pleasure. By flushing everything with water, all this effort from nature becomes watery and undone.
The first thing, thus, is to kill your crayfish before cooking and not to kill it while cooking. For this, one can employ two methods. One is to use a sharp skewer-like object or a thin-bladed knife to execute the animal. On the top of its head, just behind those stupid beady eyes, one finds a notch in the shell that lies directly above the brain. Insert the skewer of blade into the notch, apply downward pressure – this will make a crunchy sound – and the crayfish dies instantly.
Another method is to drown the crayfish in fresh-water. Simply place it in a basin of cold water and within seconds the thing will suffocate to death. As with the above method, killing the creature in this manner leaves you with a relaxed, limp crayfish that when cooked looks great on the plate, all its flesh easily accessible.
Cooking should be simple, yet attentive. Steaming is preferred to boiling as this allows the full flavour spectrum to be retained.
For this, two inches of sea water in a pot over a fire or on a hot plate. Place crayfish in the pot, cover with lid and from the moment the water causes steam, time 15 minutes and remove the crayfish from the pot.
Some like to eat the crayfish immediately and hot, I wait until it cools down to room temperature. And then the ripping, tearing and sucking starts. Lemon juice, home-made mayonnaise. And ice cold Sauvignon Blanc or un-wooded Chardonnay. There is nothing like it.
It is the season to be grateful.