Tiny morsels of perfection - crabs

Unlike their more popular counterparts such as homarus, lobster and shrimp, crabs are a specialty comprised of very little meat, but you’ll have to go out of your way to forget their sweet taste. Their season is just about to kick off and you’ll get a chance to try out the culinary magic of top-notch chefs from Istria to the southern Adriatic.

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Crabs live in sandy, rocky or silt seabeds. They can be found throughout the Adriatic. When it comes to catching them, Istria is the most specialised region as crabs are aplenty, especially in the waters around Pula. They also inhabit the area of Kvarner islands, namely, Cres, Lošinj, Unije and Susak. Given that it’s best when cooked alive, the best course of action if you’re into true culinary delights is to go to the seaside in the months to come.

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Cleaning crabs is among the most difficult tasks. Aside from practice, you need to be patient and good with your hands. The crabs are cleaned using a brush prior to cooking. When they’re done, it’s a good idea to use scissors to clean them. First we clean the legs which contain the most meat, then we take out the meat from the shell and claws and there’s a little bit of meat left on the shell’s edges. The shell itself doesn’t contain meat and is most commonly cleaned so you can use it to serve the dish after you prepare it.

Freshly caught crabs are also great fresh with a bit of lemon, salt and olive oil, but they’re just as good when used in dishes such as crab broth, pasta, risotto, salads or pâtés. Fresh crabs can be eaten all year round, except summer when the fishing season is closed.

When you’re at a restaurant’s terrace that almost merges with the sea and, if that’s not all, it’s located on an island, then you’re in for a seafood specialty extravaganza. Depending on the daily catch, Murter’s restaurant Fabro is a place where they prepare the very best seafood classics. Needless to say, crab is among the main delicacies. We talked to restaurant owner Damir Mudronja and chef Lljiljana Peslić about traditional Dalmatian crab recipes.

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- Crabs are an ingredient I love to prepare and I’m very fond of them. It’s a rarity and we mostly get it from Istria where it’s caught in an organised manner. It’s caught using creels in springtime, while the catching season is closed during the summer. Crabs are my top ingredient due to their sweet taste. We prepare a cleaned crab salad and crab soup. My grandmother taught me how to prepare the salad. To prepare it, we need to cook a whole crab. When it’s done, we clean it, remove all the meat, add a grain of salt, a drop of lemon and olive oil. I prepare the soup in oil and onion, then I add the cleaned crabs, tomatoes and white wine. By cooking it we’ll get a thick soup to which we add tiny pasta in the end. – chef Liljana told us.

Restaurant Mediteran is situated in the small stone alleys in Primošten and it’s widely known for phenomenal homemade “spiza” (traditional Dalmatian cusine) with the Adriatic being their constant source of inspiration and imagination. Aside from swathes of guests, head chef Pero Savanović and his specialties have managed to catch the attention of the French guide Gault&Millau, which has included restaurant Mediteran in its list. He shared with us some of the superb crab recipes and dishes.

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- Depending on the season, we prepare all crustaceans ranging from shrimp, homarus, lobster to crabs or, as they’re known locally, grancigule. Crabs are always boiled and cleaning their meat is no mean feat. We use them to prepare a salad and pasta. When preparing pasta with crabs, first we slice and clean the crabs. We finely chop scallion in olive oil, turn it yellow and add the sliced crabs, then we flambé it all with cognac, add some garlic and parsley and pour in some fish stock. When the crabs’ colour changes, we add some tomato sauce, garlic, parsley, a bit of peperoncino or Cayenne pepper, we pour it all together with prosecco and add a teaspoon of vinegar to subdue the crabs’ sweetness. Finally we add some fresh Mediterranean herbs and boil the pasta, spaghetti or tagliatelle separately. We stir it all together and serve it in the same pot we used to prepare the dish, we serve it a glass of Debit or Maraština.

Restaurant Kornat, which is a signature restaurant of Zadar’s restaurant scene, is situated just a few minutes on foot from the sea organ and boasts a view of the bay of Zadar and its boats. It has been proclaimed the city’s best restaurant on a number of occasions, while its cooking has outgrown Zadar a long time ago. Three head chefs run the large kitchen team and restaurant manager Sandra Petričić told us what crab delicacies they have on offer.

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- Crabs are on offer in our restaurant when fishermen bring them in, but for us they they fall under the daily offer category. Most commonly we prepare various types of pasta and risotto and they can be used in broths due to their distinct flavour. Crabs differ from other crustaceans insofar as they’re much more delicate (they meat is tastier and more delicate, which is why it’s much easier to ruin them during preparation). The fastest way to clean them is to boil them in hot water for a couple of minutes, i.e. seven minutes at most.

Pasta with crabs is their most popular dish.

- Five to six crabs are needed to prepare the pasta. They need to be boiled (for seven to eight minutes). Once they’re done, we clean three of them, while the remaining two are left intact. They should be cleaned by keeping the back shell intact, the claws are dismembered to remove the meat. We put some garlic in olive oil (in the bulb, it only needs to be gently crushed using a knife), after it releases its flavours, it needs to be removed from the oil, add the pressed pulp of cleaned tomatoes to the olive oil, add crab chunks (but not the ones whose meat was previously removed), add parsley, pepper and salt to your liking, pour in the water used to boil the crabs, add some white wine and finally the meat of cleaned crabs. The pasta that was cooked separately should finally be added to the crab sauce.

While they’re a rare delicacy these days, crabs have always been a true gourmet treat and that’s why have plenty of regional names. They’re called grancijevole in Istria, while the farther south you go, the name grancigule predominates. Fishing slang differentiates between female and male crabs by using the names “baba” (grandma) and “dida” (grandpa). “Baba is smaller and contains a lot of roe, whereas dida is larger and has big claws” – Ljiljana Peslić from restaurant Fabro explained.