Cromer crabs may be a little on the small side but they are universally loved for their plump, sweet meat. The best come from the waters just offshore from Cromer and Sheringham. The crabs are Cancer pagaraus, exactly the same species as other British edible crabs, so it is hard to tell what it is that makes them so special and distinctive in taste. It may be that they are especially slow growing and so fill their shells with meat more plentifully, or that they contain more sweet white meat than their counterparts do. Alternatively, it may be that the seabed here has less mud than other parts of coastal UK and this influences the flavour. Whatever it is, their reputation has ensured a decent living for Cromer and Sheringham’s small crabbing community over the years. Not that long ago, around 50 crab boats used regularly to put out to sea from Cromer’s beach, but these days just a handful remain.
Crabbing technique involves the setting of long lines of baited pots called ‘shanks’ in the rocky offshore waters. These are marked with buoys and left overnight, to be hauled in again the next day and re-baited with white fish once the catch has been removed. Men work in pairs to haul in the lines, remove the crabs and re-bait the pots. Sorting takes place at sea and a good four-fifths are returned to the water simply because they are too small.The crabbing season usually begins in March when crabs can be found relatively close to shore – they tend to retreat further out to sea to deeper waters during the colder months. The season lasts until the autumn, although there is a lull in high summer when the crabs breed and grow new shells and sensibly tuck themselves away from the reach of preying lobsters. Because it is on a relatively small scale, crabbing is also reassuringly sustainable, but in recent years, there has been concern about dwindling stocks, probably the consequence of offshore dredging and rising seawater temperatures caused by global warming disrupting breeding patterns. There may also be competition for food and habitat from velvet crabs, which are usually found in the Southwest but have been moving north thanks to warmer sea temperatures.
The crabber’s secret, of course, is to know exactly where to lay his pots, and when to check them: the sort of thing that can only be learned by hard experience. Some Cromer crab dynasties like the Davies family have been catching and selling crabs – and manning the lifeboat – for generations. Cromer has a number of marvellous fish shops and the same families that catch the crabs often run these – Bob Davies’ excellent fish shop is a case in point. Whether boiled or dressed, the important thing is freshness, so buying and eating one here is about as close as it gets to crustacean perfection.