A form of fresh water lobster with sweet, prawn-like flesh
“They are absolutely delicious and I think we should be eating a lot more of them,” says Darren Brown, owner of Shellseekers Fish & Game—one of the few places you can get fresh crayfish on a regular basis. But there is a complication: there are two types of crayfish in our rivers, one that Darren wants to see on more British plates, and one that needs to be left in peace.
“The ones we should be eating are the American signal crayfish which were brought over to this country in the 1970s and escaped into the wild. Because they are non-native, there are no natural control systems, so their numbers have exploded—to the point they are driving out our native white-clawed crayfish,” Darren explains. “We have tried to eradicate them, but it is a hardy, adaptable breed, so that is proving impossible. For me, the solution is obvious: we should just eat our way through the problem.”
Though the season runs roughly from late spring to late autumn, the weather can have an effect on their availability, so Darren—whose crayfish come from rivers around Dorset—gets them whenever the local fishermen who supply him decide it is worthwhile setting the traps. “I’ve been selling them at the Market for years and we have always sold them live, not frozen, so they are at their best,” Darren continues. “One of the great things about the Market is the huge diversity of people that shop here. We have found that the Scandinavians and Chinese in particular really love them—they can’t get enough of them.”
Sweet, prawn-like meat
“I think it comes down to education—when people taste these crayfish, they love them. Their flavour is something different,” says Darren. “They are special. Chef Mark Hix once used crayfish I supplied to make a rabbit and crayfish stargazy pie—the winning dish he created for the BBC’s Great British Menu. At the time he said river authorities should be paying trappers to get the crayfish out of the rivers, just as farmers pay people to shoot deer. He was right then and it’s even truer now.”
Most of the sweet, prawn-like meat is in the tail. “You should treat them like tiny lobsters. If you have a recipe that calls for large prawns or langoustines, crayfish should work nicely in it.” Smaller crayfish can be a bit fiddly to eat from the shell, but like other shellfish they can be peeled after cooking. “Just make sure they are secure when you get them home because they can be little escape artists.”
If you haven’t tried crayfish before, simplicity is key: think mayonnaise and a dash of lemon juice, or fried in paprika, garlic and plenty of olive oil before being stirred into fresh pasta. If you are feeling more adventurous, however, try ‘crawfish boil’: a popular way of eating crayfish (or crawfish, as they call them) in America. Every family has its own adaptation of the recipe, but generally it will involve cooking large quantities of crayfish along with bay leaves, cayenne pepper, onions, lemons, garlic, celery, smoked sausage, red potatoes, fresh mushrooms and corn on the cob, seasoned with the hot peppery spices of the southern states.