'Can you come back a bit later, they're still in the pot?' hollers the fishmonger, making the thought of a sweet brown crab for lunch even more irresistible. It is 10 o'clock on a Sunday morning and I need a small mountain of fresh crab meat to stir into a Lebanese-ish mint and cucumber soup which we will eat ice cold with slippers of hot pitta bread.
The crab turns out to be male, its tail, tucked away under its body, is thinner and more pointed than the female's, and at 2kg he is heavier than I had expected. I carry him home still warm and smelling like crashing white surf. A crustacean that heavy is a shock to the wallet, but he's a beauty and there will now be enough left for crab and watercress sandwiches for tea. (A radish butter, made by mixing finely chopped breakfast radishes and parsley with unsalted butter and a squeeze of lemon, is interesting here.) This particular seafood is something I tend to feast on. Heaven, if ever I get there, will consist of a freshly boiled crab eaten within sound and scent of the sea, with the raucous cawing of seagulls far, far overhead, a white napkin and a few slices of soft brown bread and butter.
The soup is another dish to add to the list of things that exploit the good idea that is crab and cucumber. It's a perfect marriage, the salty-edged, ozone-heavy crab eaten with the clean, watery taste of a cucumber so fresh that beads of water appear on its cut edge as you slice. It just isn't summer without the cool, snow'n'rust flesh of freshly caught crab in your mouth and the green crunch of a dark-skinned cucumber. (Next year I will have a go at growing cucumbers. I have slightly lost patience with the kitchen garden this year - the snails got my last grown-from-seed pumpkin last night and the hosepipe ban has left the borlotti beans weak and vulnerable.)
For those who like their lilies gilded, there could be a mousse of crab and cucumber, set in two layers, so you dip down through the layer of green and white to the brick and cream shellfish mousse beneath. A pretty lunch with a cress or Little Gem salad, but it needs a bit of gelatine, and that is where I switch off. Better (I think) and with an unsullied purity would be a scoop of white meat and another of brown set beside a speckled pool of fromage frais into which you have stirred coarsely grated cucumber. If you add a little salt after grating, leave for a half hour or so and then wring it out in your hands, the cucumber won't produce a flood of water.
If cucumber works with shellfish, then why not other sweet, watery ingredients? Melon, particularly the salmon-pink-fleshed Charentais and cantaloupe, is bliss in a crab salad. Melon likes to mingle with salty friends, and crab works in much the same way as Parma ham in this respect. A cool salad for a perfect summer's afternoon.
Crab and melon salad with lime and watercress
An exhilarating, refreshing jumble of tastes and sensations going on here: peppery, cool, salty, sour. With melon it is best to stick to white meat. Serves 4 as a light lunch.
2 medium-sized ripe green or orange-fleshed melons, well chilled
half a cucumber
100g (2 large bunches) watercress
400g fresh white crab meat
for the dressing:
a lump of ginger the size of a walnut
75ml freshly squeezed lime juice
(about 2 ripe limes)
1-2 small, hot chillies, finely chopped
1 tsp palm sugar (or unrefined caster)
4 tsp mild olive oil
20 mint leaves
To make the dressing, peel the ginger and grate it over a bowl. You should get a good heaped teaspoon of ginger puree. Stir in the lime juice, the chillies, sugar and olive oil. Season with a little salt and a generous amount of coarsely ground pepper. Roughly chop the mint leaves and stir them in, setting a few whole ones aside for later.
Peel the melons, cut the flesh in half and scrape out the seeds with a teaspoon. Cut the flesh into fat, juicy chunks. Peel the cucumber, remove the seeds and cut the flesh into chunks, but make them smaller than those of the melon. Toss the melon gently with the dressing.
Wash the watercress, trimming off only the toughest stalks, then add it to the melon. Divide the melon and watercress between two large plates or salad bowls, leaving any extra dressing behind in the bowl.
Season the crab meat with a little salt and black pepper, then pile it on top of the melon and watercress. Add the remaining mint leaves and eat straightaway, while everything is well chilled and before the salad becomes wet.
Chilled crab and cucumber soup
We ate bowls of this, together with slices of Manuel Monade's Hoxton Levain bread, for lunch. Followed by a watercress-based salad, it was enough for a summer lunch. The richness in the crab meat sits nicely with the mint-edged freshness from the cucumber soup. Pick a sunny day for this one. Serves 4.
a large cucumber
a small clove of garlic
500ml natural yogurt
a small, red chilli
1 tbsp wine vinegar
a small bunch of mint (to give about 4 tbsp chopped leaves)
100ml single cream
a few sprigs of parsley
8 heaped tbsp white and brown crab meat
Peel the cucumber, halve it, scrape out the seeds with a teaspoon, then chop into very small dice. Tip the cucumber into a colander, sprinkle liberally with a teaspoonful of sea salt, toss gently, then leave in the sink for a good half hour.
Peel and very finely crush the garlic and add to the yogurt. Seed and very finely chop the chilli and stir in the vinegar, then mix into the yogurt. Remove the leaves from the mint and chop them finely - you will need about 4 lightly heaped tablespoons - then stir them into the soup.
Stir in the cucumber, but not the liquid that has drained from it, and then the cream. Season with black pepper and chill in the fridge. It must be really cold if it is to be good. Chop the parsley leaves and mix with the crab meat, adding a little black pepper as you go.
To serve, divide the soup between four soup bowls. Place two heaped tablespoons of crab meat into the centre of each bowl and serve immediately.