Sunday, July 17, 2011

Much Ado About Molting

My beautiful Angel, Clare, and I love soft shell crabs.  I have previously blogged about our experience taking a cooking class to learn how to cook soft shell crabs at the Outer Banks Epicurean.  (I strongly recommend checking the place out if you are in the Outer Banks, whether it is to pick up something to eat, take a cooking class or check out the wines and other sundries that are for sale there).  During our cooking class, our instructor told us about Endurance Seafood, a local seafood company located across the street from her store.  Endurance Seafood has a crab shedding operation where they farm the molting crabs to produce soft-shell crabs that are distributed to restaurants and markets along the eastern United States.  I sensed an opportunity at the time to learn more about soft shell crabs are farmed, as well as to learn about how a small, family owned company could contribute so much to the culinary world, not just in the United States, but also around the world.  

Endurance Seafood is easy to miss, even if you just cross the street from the Outer Banks Epicurean.  The operations of Endurance Seafood are located in a building tucked behind the owner's house.  As we turned onto the gravel road, which had been the route of tractor trailer trucks just a couple weeks before, we approached an unassuming building. We got out and spoke with Kristina (if I recall correctly, I am really bad with names).  As we discussed our order, Kristina informed us that we were too late to see the molting of the soft shell crabs, which had occurred a couple weeks before.  Nevertheless, she offered Clare and myself the opportunity to see how a crab shedding operation works.   

Generally speaking, the molting processes begin with the first full moon in May.  The crabs will give a sign that they are ready to molt, which takes the form of red dots that appear on their back fins.  When the crabs molt, they can shed their exoskeleton within two to three hours.  At that time, crab shedding operations will separate the crabs from the shells.  If this does not happen, the hardening process will continue and one is left with a larger, hard shell crab.  The molting processes continue each month around the full moon until September.  This means that there is a supply of fresh soft shell crabs being available between May and September.

A crab shedding operation, such as the one at Endurance Seafood, will have tens, if not hundreds of tanks.  In each take, there will be a couple hundred crabs.  That means thousands, or tens of thousands, of crabs just waiting to shed their exoskeletons.  Once they shedded their shells, the crabs are sorted by size, given labels such as Primes, Jumbos, Hotels and Whales.  Endurance Seafood then ships the crabs, while they are still alive, to distributors, including some at the New Fulton Fish Market, where those soft shell crabs may find themselves in restaurants not only in the United States, but elsewhere around the world.

The opportunity to take a look beyond an ingredient is a truly special experience, at least for me.  This is an aspect of my hobby that I wish I had the time and opportunity to explore more often.  Perhaps I need my own television show on the Cooking Channel, or better yet, joining Andrew Zimmern and Tony Bourdain on the Travel Channel.  I guess I can dream ...


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