Eight Generations of Fishing Knowledge Went Into This Crab Salad

Every summer, decades-old fishing families in the Norfolk town of Cromer catch what they claim is the UK’s best crab. “When it’s in your blood, it’s in your blood,” says fisherman John Lee.

by Johanna Derry
Jun 30 2015, 12:00pm

Buckets and spades, metallic sandcastle windmills, fish and chips on the pier—Cromer is a classic British seaside town. Every summer, thousands of people flock to the north Norfolk destination but the boats pulled up on the beach are a clue to what makes it different to other coastal spots. Cromer has amazing crabs.

"A Cromer crab, to my mind, is the best crab. It's so sweet, so tender, and so compact," explains Rose Ely, who has been selling crabs at Davies fishmongers in the town for 35 years. "If you go to Yorkshire, the crabs are huge but there's nothing in their bottoms. You'll find claws for sale, but not whole crabs. And their crabmeat is yellowy looking, whereas ours is brown and inside it's full of meat."

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Crab pots on Cromer pier in north Norfolk. All photos by the author.

In Cromer, crabbing is in the blood and people have been making their living from the sea for generations. There were once herring fleets and boats trawling for cod too, and while those stocks have since failed, the crab remains plentiful. Men go out every day to haul them in from under the flint rock just offshore from the north Norfolk coast.

The fishermen lay rows of barrel-shaped crab pots called creels, tethered together into a shank. At each end, there's an anchor and a dan buoy.

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"The dan at the end shows you where the pots start," explains Claire Davies of the Davies family, a distinguished Cromer fishing family who have been going to sea for eight generations. "Each shank has numbers on it to show who it belongs to so that no one else can nick your pots. The pots are put into the sea baited up with scads [horse mackerel] and frames [cod bones], and put in the water and left for 12 to 24 hours or two to three weeks, depending on what we catch."

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Davies Fishmongers in Cromer.

This way of catching crabs has altered very little in over a hundred years and is perhaps one of the earliest examples of sustainable fishing.

"A man called Frank Buckland made a report in the 1880s about crab stocks which led to two crab and lobster acts. These determined that crabs and lobsters could only be brought ashore if they exceeded a certain size," explains Alistair Murphy from Cromer Museum. "Today, the fisheries people will occasionally measure the crabs and lobsters coming off the beach to check they're big enough."

Cromer's herring and cod might have failed but Buckland's progressive thinking means there's still a supply of crab to be caught today.

"I brought home 200 crabs this morning," says fisherman John Lee. "For every one crab I get, I must throw about twenty back that are too small. There's plenty of crab out there to be had but fewer of us going out to catch them."

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cromer-crab-fishing-family Rose Ely, who has been selling crabs at Davies Fishmongers for 35 years.

Lee was three years old when he first went out to sea. His father and his grandfather were both fishermen and his mother's maiden name was Davies. Despite relying on many of the same crabbing methods, some things have changed since he was young.

"I used to go to sea as a kid and we had bigger crab boats in them days, two- or three- handers," Lee remembers. "Now we have one-handers, little fibreglass boats and most of us go out to sea alone."

Another fisherman, John Jonas, has been going to sea since he was small and has the last wooden crabbing boat in Cromer, the Mary Ann.

"All the others got these little boats but I thought it was too late to change. This was about ten years ago," he says. "They got these little boats because they were having to work on their own. My boat's heavier than theirs and people didn't think I'd be able to work a big boat on my own, but I handled it and can land it, so I have been."

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Crabbing is hard work and weather dependent. In storms, the crab hides and the creels remain empty, so the men stay ashore and wait for the weather to pass. There's not much to be caught in January or February, but as the water warms up, the crab comes out. Fortunately, the pattern of when crab is there to be caught fits with the holiday season.

"If the weather isn't good, people won't sit down to a crab salad," says Davies. "But when it's warm, we hope to catch enough to meet that demand."

Years ago, crabs would be sold live from the beach. Now, the fishermen prepare the catch themselves, placing them in freshwater to anaesthetise them before boiling in copper pans. The crabs are then scrubbed and dressed ready to sell.

"The crab is all from here. It's got no air miles," says Ely. "When I'm dressing a crab, I feel that every one has a different character."

Dressing a crab is an art in itself, and everyone has their own way to prepare it. Tracey Burton has been doing it for 32 years.

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"I can do about 22 in an hour on a good run," she boasts from a table in the back of Davies Fishmongers. She opens the underside of a crab, pulls off the big claws and the legs, and then removes the shekel—the crab's central section. The shell gets opened wider to reveal the tightly packed brown meat inside the body. She loosens this out and scoops out white meat from the sockets of the shekel where the legs and claws met, before breaking the claws to get the white meat from inside them.

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Burton also has a signature way of laying out all this meat on the crab shell. Everybody does it slightly differently

Meanwhile Lee sells his catch from out the front of his house.

"My mum and dad started selling crabs here in 1957," he says. "In them days, we just had a wooden table outside, there was no ice, and there were no dressed crabs in those days. Everyone did their own."

That morning, Lee had been up at 2.30 AM, following the tides to bring in the day's catch.

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"It's hard work but I've never considered doing anything else. Sometimes when you've had three weeks bad weather and you're getting constantly wet, you do think to yourself, There must be better ways to make a living," he says. "But when it's in your blood, it's in your blood and there's nothing you can do about it. I know half two in the morning is the middle of the night for most people, but on a day like today, it's almost a pleasure to be out at sea."

Back on shore for 9 AM, the crab is dressed and ready to sell in time for lunch. The best way to eat it? Ely knows.

"A crab on a plate with brown bread and butter, a salad, or new potatoes, is perfectly enough," she says. "The crab is so good as it is, you don't need anything else."