Saturday, January 16, 2010

Cooking Up Revenge On Invasive Crayfish

I spent the next few weeks looking for another cooking job. Greeny and Stewie were the only ones I'd stayed in touch with. They phoned one day and said they'd borrowed an "old Hoseasons warhorse", and I could meet them at the estuary for a spot of fishing.

I was leaning out of the boat when it happened. My hook snagged on something on the bottom and I tried to yank it free, angling the rod to one side. There was no give, and for five minutes I tested the strength of the line.

I got off the boat and walked a few yards down the riverbank, pulling the rod low over the river. Eventually something. A slight movement. I kept pulling - something heavy was dragging along the bottom, tangled in the reeds. I pulled again, pulling in some line, and the line stretched and looked like it was about to snap. Then something yellow broke the surface. I pulled again and a large plastic cage appeared and slipped back into the water.

“Quick!” I shouted to the others. “Have a look at this.”

Greeny and Stewie looked over nonchalantly from their rods, and made wanker signs. None of us had caught anything.

“Look at this!”

Greeny eventually wandered over. He grabbed the line, and pulled out a barrel-shaped trap. There must have been 30 fat crayfish in there, in a wriggling mass. There was a sticker on the side saying Environment Agency.

“Get a pot,” Greenie shouted over to Stewie.

He poured the crayfish into the saucepan, pushing the lid down to stop them escaping. One or two hit the side of the pan and landed in the reeds and made a dash for freedom. Somehow they knew where the river was.

I went to grab them but they lashed at me with their claws, sitting back on their tails. Like gladiators, they held their pincers aloft. But I was never one for a fair fight, so I grabbed them from behind and put them in the pot. Greeny poured out the last of the crayfish, and a gnawed fish head fell on to the river bank.

“Put the bait back in, or they'll know we've been here,” hissed Stewie. He was looking up and down the river anxiously. They were the red-clawed signal crayfish (Pacifastacus leniusculus), a large, aggressive American species that has wiped out 95% of the native white-clawed species (Austropotamobius pallipes) since it was introduced to the UK in the late 70s, so you could argue we were doing our bit for ecology, but he knew there was no way he'd get a job in marine biology if he got caught poaching from the Environment Agency.

I followed the line from the pot. Ten yards later another trap emerged from the mud. There must have been another 50 crayfish in there. We could hardly get the saucepan lid on and let the smaller ones crawl back into the water.

We started the boat engine, untied the mooring ropes, and headed back up stream. I boiled a kettle of water on the spluttering galley stove and examined our catch. The pan had a glass lid and their beady eyes peered up suspiciously. Ten minutes later the kettle started to whistle. It was a sound the crayfish hadn't heard before, but somehow they seemed to know something was wrong, then we realised we didn’t have any salt.

Greeny said we’d ask for some at the next lock, but Stewie was worried it would draw too much attention. A demand for salt could mean only one thing – a bucket full of poached crayfish. The gas in the cabin was so weak, I could only boil a few at a time. After two batches the water had turned into a thick yellow soup.

I drew the curtains as we went through the lock. Greeny jumped out to deal with the ropes and keep the lock-keeper chatting. The sweet, forbidden smell of boiled crayfish wafted out. I carried on my scurrilous work as they chatted away about red boards, and currents, and how high the weir was, and how to catch eels with a ball of wool. We had gone through another lock, with the same elicit bouquet pouring out from the galley, by the time I was on my last batch.

We moored up and got to work. The crayfish were a beautiful red. We cracked them open with our hands and picked out the black intestinal sac that ran down their backs. I sucked out the meat from one head, in the same way I do when I'm peeling prawns. It was a bad mistake. Yellow and green river gunge shot in my mouth, as bitter as wormwood, and it took a pint of water and a few swigs from the gin bottle to banish the taste.

Soon there was a funeral pyre a foot high of shells and claws. I’d been thinking of a recipe for the past hour – I’d solve the salt problem by frying them up with bacon rashers. Being freshwater, and especially if the head meat was anything to go by, they’d need as much salt as possible.

I fried chopped bacon in two scoops of salted butter, and threw in a few ripped sage leaves I’d stolen from a lock-keeper’s garden. Then a squeeze from the lemon we’d been saving for our vodka-tonics. The juice fizzed in the pan. I threw in the tails - and a buttery-bisque aroma filled the boat.

I poured the crayfish and the butter sauce on to three plates. Thick slices of bread for the mopping. We sat there in silence mopping juice and making occasional gluttonous noises, with the rain beating hard against the boat. Our plates were soon spotless with the bread-wiping, and we sat there with our bellies strangely full, reflecting on what we’d just done. And what a delicious supper we’d had. And how much peeling goes in to making just one PrĂȘt a Manger sandwich...

I know boats and fresh air make you hungry, but I can honestly say it was one of the best dishes I've ever eaten.


Anonymous said...

Just discovered your blog - am really enjoying your writing (reading through the 'back issues' now...). Good luck with the cheffing (should you go back to it)!

Lennie Nash said...

Thanks Anonymous. Going back to cheffing hey - wouldn't that just be madness? Been on my mind a lot lately - do you need to be mad to be a chef?

Anyway, glad you like the blog. This may be one of the last posts.

All the best,


Anonymous said...

Why are you stopping the posts, Lennie?

Nicky said...

Mmmm. just salivating with pleasure. Don't stop writing please

Anna said...

Lennie, great blog. i look forward to your updates.

I was salivating while reading it. Loved the photo as well.

Should thank you for your blogs, I've learned a lot from them, never knew how hard you work to feed the diners. None of the chefs I know talk about it.

Matt Harrington said...

Catching up on the blog - this day out has got me wanting something to eat....

Anonymous said...

Good information thank you closely monitor your success.