Prey: American Signal Crawfish (Pacifastacus leniusculus)
Place: Somewhere in England
April is the coolest month, as T.S. Eliot might have said, in which it is nevertheless feasible to trap the American Signal Crawfish in England. No doubt an occasional creature can be lifted in March or even during the winter but it is really not worth dusting off the trap and investing in bait (or scouring the lanes for roadkill) before April. Blank days will still occur but with warm(ish) weather such as we experienced at some points in both April 2007 and 2008, some decent hauls of at least a dozen crawfish can be expected (about twenty are needed to provide an adequate meal for two).
The sensible trapper will venture out only when conditions are conducive--or decide that the pleasure of trapping can be deferred until the more favourable conditions of May. And so we come to April 2009, a month in which catches have been distinctly poor, notwithstanding the employment as bait of some tasty chicken carcasses obtained from a local butcher at a knockdown price, along with a few trout heads and tails. So for days on end the trap sat on its peg in the garden shed. Total catch for the month amounted to a miserly twenty-eight. Since most of these were large, i.e. six inches or more in length, they yielded just about enough to concoct an etouffé for two (see, for example, Lagasse recipe), with sufficient surplus meat for a sandwich.
Throughout the month blanks predominated and the best single catch was a lacklustre eight. Why were results so poor? It seems likely that the relatively harsh winter, the coldest in thirty years in the UK, meant that water temperatures were too low to induce crustacean activity. In terms of results, therefore, April was the cruellest month in your Rural Correspondent’s career (admittedly brief) in the English crawfishing industry. What will May bring?
The answer, in short: scarcely better. Shakespeare’s phrase ‘the darling buds of May’ might be suggestive of warm and sunny days, but for much of May 2009 it was a case of cold, dry and windy weather. In other words, just the conditions to keep crawfish inactive and uninterested in food. As a result the trap remained in the shed more than it was in the water; it simply became too demoralising to pull it out and find it either empty or containing only two or three crawfish. So, the total catch for the month was forty-six. While this was an improvement on April, it was a poor return in relation to effort expended.
My best ever catch in one haul, using a wire trap measuring about 20 inches by ten by ten, is sixty-six--with over sixty trapped on one or two other occasions. With such numbers the trap--more or less column-shaped with a flat base--is literally full. So forty-six over a thirty-one day month is decidedly poor. What did I do with those I caught? Aside from a sandwich or two--wonderful with fresh garden salad, mayonnaise and a glass of pinot grigio or other crisp white wine--we enjoyed two crawfish and asparagus risottos, using the liquor from boiling the crawfish to cook the rice.
In the absence of road kill--the rabbits in these parts are getting far too street wise--chicken carcases from the butcher again provided this month’s stand-by bait. While these carcases can be highly effective (please avoid the next few lines if you are squeamish) squashed rabbit, well-mangled, is superior. If you can stand it, skin the rabbit--the pelt takes up valuable space. Removal of a rabbit skin is actually a pretty easy task; after a few deft incisions around the neck it can be stripped off like a glove. Then all that is necessary is to place the corpse, or half of it if the rabbit is large, in the trap and the trap in the water (entrance facing downstream) and wait.
Why is road kill rabbit so good? A number of reasons; principally, it takes the crawfish, even though it is not the most refined of diners, a long time to strip off all the meat and associated gunk. Consequently, the bait, including all the guts and smelly bits, works as an attractor over an extended period. As the crawfish go to work, pieces of meat and other material drift downstream and attract their brethren. In contrast, chicken carcases, at least those my butcher gives me, hold little meat. I also have used pigeon, cat food, squirrel, fish heads and beef bones with varying degrees of success.
Pigeon is an excellent bait, but if you do not want a trapful of feathers it should be plucked. Since pigeons are very easy to pluck this is no hardship. The one downside of the pigeon is that the voracious crawfish will pick it clean in no time. Incidentally, do not waste succulent pigeon breasts on crawfish; cut them out and eat them yourself. As for squirrel; it is hard for me to obtain them. In contrast to rabbit they are not easy to skin. On the positive side, a dead squirrel is tough enough to last as bait for a good long time. Fish heads also are good. Large beef bones, on the other hand, take up a lot of room and seldom, in my experience, hold much meat. I give them the thumbs down.
Finally, some of the crawfish I did manage to catch were clutching eggs or young (exact replicas of the adults barely one-quarter of an inch long). In some cases, these did not became detached until the cooking process. So although crawfish have a reputation for eating anything and everything, including each other, it strikes me that they might have been unduly maligned in terms of their family values and nurturing skills. The tenderness of crawfish--widely accepted in one sense--may have been unjustly overlooked in another.
At last some better weather and, as a result, a pretty good month for trapping ensued. Twenty-one days of activity (did I really spend so much time on this pursuit?) yielded a total haul of 210 signal crawfish at an average of ten per dip, with a best catch of thirty-six. Thirty-six crawfish, though far below your Rural Correspondent’s record, represents a most respectable return. So at last I have enough meat to freeze for winter use. Whether it is in the freezer or has already been consumed I am not sure, but this month I caught my biggest ever specimen. It was 10 inches long (from the tip of its tail to the tip of its claws) and weighed 7 ounces--a monster. I did not trap it; I could not have have done so because it would never have navigated the trap entrance. I caught it on some bread paste in a lake while tench fishing. It set me wondering how big these things can grow so if you have encountered anything larger be sure to inform us here at britishfoodinamerica.
No doubt some readers are wondering about the best locations in which to place a trap and the best techniques to employ. Your correspondent frequents only one small river. It is some 12 feet wide with a mix of deepish spots (up to about 5 feet) and shallows. The water tends to be at least slightly murky even when rainfall is low. Favourable weather conditions apart, best results seem to be secured when the trap is located in water some two to three feet in depth. Crawfish like plenty of cover and low light conditions so positioning the trap near a reed bed or under an overhanging willow is to be recommended. Some current, though not too much, is good as this allows the scent of the bait to waft downstream. The other advantage of reeds is that they allow the line attaching the trap to the bank to be concealed.
My favoured stretch of river is quiet with almost no passers-by aside from the occasional angler. However, in 2008 I did have a trap stolen when it was left in a slightly more public location adjacent to a road bridge. Since a good trap can cost between £20 and £30 ($33-$50) I do not want to be replacing them too often. So I attach the trap to a cord that blends with the bank side surroundings and the cord to reeds or bushes. I then ensure that the cord is well hidden in the undergrowth. If the trap is effectively concealed it is important to have a clear fix on its location. Your Correspondent has occasionally wandered the riverside trying to recall where he last sank his trap. Best to use a marker--but not one that reveals a location to the world.
My practice is to move the trap downstream by about five metres after each haul. Once I reach the end of my beat I simply start again at the top. As for time of day, overnight is good for trapping provided the temperature does not drop too much. Finally, be sure to check your trap regularly. It should not go unchecked more than twenty-four hours. Whether the removal of hundreds or even thousands of signal crawfish from a short stretch of river over a period of years makes any significant difference to the long-term population level is doubtful. Indeed, some argue that trapping results in a population increase for it tends to the removal of the larger specimens which might predate the younger. I’m not convinced, but one thing seems certain: those crawfish just keep on coming.
Although July should be one of the peak months for trapping, your diarist did not visit the river for more than three weeks owing to a combination of vacation and business commitments. So, it was a very short trapping month extending to little more than a week from the 23rd to the 31st. In that period the total catch amounted to 154 crawfish--so just over 17 per trap with a best haul of 41.
This diary has proceeded thus far on the, possibly apocryphal, ‘first catch your crawfish’ principle of cookery, with barely a mention of how to proceed thereafter. Trapping in itself is an enjoyable activity (at least for those of a certain cast of mind): It can be undertaken in pleasant rural locations and comes with the added frisson of never knowing quite what the trap will contain. But there has to be an end product too. In fact, your diarist, though he lays no claim to culinary brilliance, does cook his catch. The first thing is to prepare the catch. This entails its transfer to a bowl or bucket of cool, clean water where the crawfish should be left to purge for a few hours if possible. The water should be changed once or twice in order to get rid of mud and faeces.
Once the crawfish are clean they can be cooked. Opinion varies as to whether it is more humane to plunge then into boiling water, place them in cold water that is then brought slowly to the boil or placed in the freezer prior to cooking until they are comatose. I tend to eschew the boiling water approach on the grounds that if I have a large quantity of crawfish to cook, the water will be off the boil before the last creatures enter the pot. So I favour the cold water/slow heating approach.
Put a lid on the pot--not least to prevent escapes--and bring the water to the boil. Do not overcook; once the crawfish have turned red they will be done. Then, either leave to cool naturally or douse them in cold water--but preserve the cooking liquor, which should be of a yellowish brown hue.
Once the crawfish have cooled they can be prepared for the table. I use a heavy board, a wooden mallet, a small sharp knife, and four bowls--one for the meat, one for waste, one for heads and shells, and one for soft tissue/roe that can be used in bisque. Remove all the claws before cracking them with the mallet an extracting the flesh. Reserve the claw shells. Then, remove and reserve the heads. Pull off the end of the tail--some alimentary tract may come away too and place in the waste bowl. Remove and reserve the rest of the tail shell. The naked tail can then easily be separated manually to expose the alimentary tract, which should be consigned to the waste bowl.
Once you have all the meat, boil the reserved shells and heads in the cooking liquor. But do not boil for too long or the water will turn an unappealing dark brown or black. Drain the liquor. Add the roe and other soft tissue and blend. You are now ready to prepare a bisque. There are a number of different bisque recipes of various complexities--some of which involve stuffing the heads. I have adapted one from Mrs Beeton. Don’t worry about getting precise quantities of the ingredients--the recipe is very forgiving.
Mrs. Beeton’s crawfish bisque.
-2 pints crawfish liquor
-10-20 crawfish (use the scraps)
-anchovy sauce or paste (or whole anchovies)
-glass of dry white wine.
-white bread crumbs (from 1 or 2 decrusted slices)
-juice of half a lemon
-1 or 2 eggs
- Melt butter in large saucepan.
- Add breadcrumbs. Stir and do not allow browning.
- Slowly add crawfish liquor. Add wine, a form of anchovy and lemon: Bring close to boil.
- Add crawfish and blitz with hand processor or food processor. Remove the soup from the heat.
- Blend eggs and cream in a separate bowl and add to the pot when the heat has subsided a little (or the eggs will curdle). Blitz or whisk the mixture--there should be some frothing.
- Serve with prawn crackers (available in the United States from Chinese grocers and upmarket specialty shops).
- As an optional extra, corn (frozen or even tinned is adequate here) can be introduced with the wine, anchovy and lemon. This will thicken the bisque and subtly change its flavour.
August in England was warm and dry, so conditions for crawfishing were optimal. Your Rural Correspondent racked up a total of fifteen trapping days. These yielded the highly respectable return of 417 crawfish. The best day was Wednesday 19 August when two visits to the river produced a total catch of 61.
Most of this month’s catch was consigned to the freezer for consumption over the winter. Crawfish freeze very well; to your Correspondent’s palate, it is hard to detect a difference between the fresh and frozen articles. The preparation of so many crawfish is, inevitably, time-consuming. It also takes its toll of the hands, for signal crawfish shells are spiky at several points (no pun intended) and these spikes lead to cuts and scratches. Yet your Correspondent is not attracted by the use of gloves, for they interfere with the shelling process.
Hundreds of crawfish produce a mass of waste with perhaps 70 per cent of the catch by bulk thrown away. Nevertheless, the meat recovered and the stock generated makes the trapping exercise worthwhile--especially as the catch is free beyond investment in a trap and, on occasion, some expenditure on bait. Aside from a mass of frozen crawfish, this month’s catch provided the basis for a crawfish pie. As the recipient of two excellent cookbooks, courtesy of our Editor, containing recipes previously unknown to me, your rural Correspondent was able to try some new dishes.
The books in question are: Dr Johnnye Akin, International Crawfish Cuisine (Baton Rouge 1988) and Donald Link, Real Cajun. Rustic Home Cooking from Donald Link’s Louisiana (New York 2009). Link’s book includes six crawfish recipes, of which your correspondent has attempted only one: the rich and delicious but distinctly un-English ‘Spicy Fettucine’. I have not counted the number of recipes in Akin’s volume but the text runs to eleven chapters and 254 pages. The six chapters of part I are devoted to the United States, with major emphasis on Louisiana, ‘the crawfish capital of the world’. The five chapters of part II are devoted to recipes from Europe, Africa, South America and Asia; not one of them hails from the United Kingdom!
Potentially, this was another good month for trapping in terms of the weather. However, your correspondent ventured abroad with the trap on only three occasions. These outings yielded a total catch of eighty-four. At this point, although my enthusiasm was as high as ever, I was obliged to agree with my wife that we have enough crawfish in the freezer. So it would seem that another season is over.
Before closing this diary for the last time, however, your Rural Correspondent must make good on a promise made parenthetically to our readers last April and offer up britishfoodinamerica’s adaptation of Emeril Lagasse’s simple crawfish ettouffe from Louisiana Real and Rustic (New York 1996).
4 Tablespoons unsalted butter
2 cups chopped onions
1 ½ cups chopped celery
-½ cup chopped bell peppers (any combination of colors but include some green)
-1 lb crawfish tails
-2 bay leaves
-1 Tablespoon flour (as usual, Wondra preferred)
-1 cup water or liquor from boiling crawfish
-1 teaspoon salt
-cayenne to taste
-2 Tablespoons minced parsley (curly and flat each work)
-4 Tablespoons minced green scallion tops
- Melt butter until foaming in a large heavy skillet over medium high heat.
- Cook the onions, celery and peppers until they turn a deep gold; you may need to reduce the heat to prevent scorching.
- Add crawfish and bay, reduce the heat to medium if you have not yet done so, and cook, just until the crawfish curl into tight discs. This will not take long.
- Sprinkle the crawfish mixture with the flour until it loses its raw color and stir the water into the skillet.
- Add the salt and cayenne, cook until the ettouffe thickens, then add the minced greens and serve immediately, always with rice.