Brittany Crab Bisque
This soup (or bisque to be fancy) is the sort you could expect to find on the Norman and Breton coasts of France - my very favourite place in the world for seafood. Just back over the Channel (or La Manche to side with the French here), on the South Coast of England, they fish the same species and comb similar beds of molluscs, but, for me, there is just something about the French approach... The Breton people, they say, are more of the sea than the land, and Brittany itself, somewhat cut off from the rest of France, seems to stretch out like a long craggy finger pointing into the Atlantic. It has been a long-standing fantasy of mine to spend one of the more maudlin months, a November perhaps, holed up in a little apartment full of books in one of the coastal towns - Cancale, or Saint Vaast maybe. For entertainment, I would read and watch the storms roll in across the intertidal oyster beds, and for lunch (the highlight of this fantasy!) I would pop downstairs to one of the simple open-fronted restaurants that line the waterfront for a bowl of hot crab soup, piled with cheese, and served with garlicky rouille on crisp bread... washed down with a big brown bottle of the local apple cider. Of course, following the soup, would be the oysters for which this part of France is famous. The 00-sized oysters in Cancale are as big as dinner plates, but some salty little Creuse de Bretagne would suit just fine for this lunch - shucked in record time by the thickly-wooled fisherman inevitably stationed by the oyster crate at the door, and served all heaped on top of one another in an unceremoniously messy pile...
This crab soup recipe attempts to capture that Breton 'feeling,' while recognising that, unlike our Breton friends, we are likely to have to rely on a fishmonger for fresh crabs, and not likely to have loads of left-over crab shells on hand... Using whole crabs does take this recipe in a slightly less rustic, and more decadent direction, but perhaps that's ok - what works on the wind swept shoreline doesn't necessarily always translate perfectly to the urban kitchen... Nonetheless, finished with a warming dash of cognac, it is one of the better antidotes to November I can think of!
- 1.4kg cooked crab – ask your fishmonger to crack and clean this, but retain the brown meat
- 3 tbsp of light olive oil
- 1 small onion, peeled and chopped
- 1 small leek, trimmed and chopped
- 4 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
- 2 tsp fennel seeds, ground in a pestle and mortar
- 1 bay leaf
- 50g butter
- 2-3 tbsp tomato puree
- 2 tbsp plain flour
- 1 glass dry white wine
- 1.5 litres of good-quality fish stock
- 100ml double cream
- Sea salt & freshly ground pepper
- A good shot of your favourite cognac
First, remove the large claws from the crab – pick and shred the white meat from these – this will be added at the end. Next, set about dismembering the body of the crab; crack open the legs, also reserving any white meat, and lift the top off the crab, removing the white meat from the body cavity as well.
Heat the oil in a large heavy based pan or casserole. To this add the crab shells and brown meat – you may need to crack your crab shells apart a little at this point, depending on the size of your pan. Fry the shells on a high heat, stirring them as they begin to colour. Next, add the onion and leek, and continue cooking these until softened. Now add the garlic, bay leaf and ground fennel seeds, continuing to stir for another couple of minutes until the garlic is fragrant, but not burnt.
To the pan, add the butter, and stir well. Making a well in the centre of the shells, add the tomato puree and the flour, stirring this together to form a smooth paste, and then gradually stirring throughout the rest of the pan. Slowly, add the wine, and then the fish stock – it is important to keep stirring here to ensure that the flour dissolves and does not form lumps. Season with salt and pepper, and then turn up the heat to bring to a boil. Once boiled, reduce the heat to a simmer and cook, uncovered, for one hour.
Using a sieve positioned over a bowl, drain the soup, pushing the shells into the mesh to ensure that the maximum amount of liquid is collected. Remove some of the soft, internal white shells (but not the hard red outer shells) from the sieve and add these, together with the strained bisque to a blender or liquidiser. Blend on a high speed for a few minutes and then pass the liquid through the sieve once again.
Return the strained bisque to a clean pan, check the seasoning, and bring to the boil. Turn the heat down to a minimum, and then stir in the cream. Finally, splash in a lovely large shot of cognac.
Serve immediately, in warmed bowls, topping the bisque with the shredded white claw meat. Some very crunchy baguette and butter would certainly not go astray alongside!