BisqueOk, so it’s clearly not an allotment glut. However,  shellfish are at their plumpest and sweetest in Winter. A good job too, because nothing else is.

When the allotment ground is too frozen to dig there is only one recourse: leave for somewhere warmer.

Devon. Yes, alright, it’s barely a degree warmer, but I have found a cookery school in Ashburton where the kitchens are very warm and cosy. Here I have installed myself for a week of (warm) food and, it turns out, a grueling 10 hours a day in the kitchen. I am sweating by lunchtime of Day One.

As well as butchery, ballontines and The Dreaded Hollandaise, I learn a lot about seafood. Over the week we chomp through seemingly endless supplies of crabs, scallops, plaice, red mullet, trout, oysters, mussels and clams cooked in ways that little old me from the landlocked Cotswolds had hitherto only dreamt of.

I also learn that oysters, clams, mussels and the like are best eaten in the winter. Summer is their spawning time during which they get mushy, watery and flabby (don’t we all, darling). And golly what a different beast the fresh winter oyster is to those I remember trying on summer holidays. Naturally, freshness is a big factor too. Having been nipped and pinched by rebelling scallops and crabs on their journey to the hob, I can vouch for this.

So thank you to Ashburton Cookery School for inspiring this landlubber to cook more seafood. Here are some of the dishes I would recommend, mostly based on recipes adapted from the cooking school.

Shellfish Bisque:

  •  Shell of 1 crab (or lobster or crayfish – anything pink basically)
  •  100g of cooled prawns (shell and heads on)
  •  30ml brandy
  •  1 clove bashed and unpeeled garlic
  •  1 chopped leek
  •  1 chopped carrot
  •  1 stick chopped celery
  •  1 tbsp tomato puree
  •  800ml fish stock
  •  50ml double cream
  •  1 bay leaf
  •  Nob of butter

Melt the butter in a heavy bottomed pan. Add the garlic, leek, carrot and celery and sweat slowly.

Add the crab shell and prawns and bash them up with the end of a rolling pin (beware the flying shards of shell). Then add the tomato puree and bay leaf and cook through for a minute or two. Pour in the brandy and reduce to a syrup.

Cover the debris with the stock and simmer for 30 minutes. Strain the mixture through a muslin, squeezing out as much of the juice as you can into a bowl. (Yes, it is fiddly, but golly it’s worth it.)

Re-boil the strained juice, then remove from the heat and add the cream and season.

You could add clams, oysters or mussels at the end to this to make a main course soup, or use it as a pasta sauce. Technically it doesn’t freeze (the cream will split when you thaw it), but I’ve managed to without ill effects, so give it a go.

Serves 2 as a soup or 4 as a pasta sauce.

Crab noodles and/or Spring rolls:

  • 50g vermicelli
  • 1 clove garlic, crushed
  • white crab meat of 1 crab (or crayfish tails)
  • handful of beansprouts
  • 1 tbsp oyster sauce
  • 1 tbsp sugar
  • 1 tbsp sunflower or corn oil
  • bunch of chopped coriander
  • Some sheets of spring roll pastry (should you have a chinese supermarket nearby)

Soak the vermicelli in hot water for 3 minutes, rinse under cold water and cut roughly into 4cm lengths.

In a wok, heat the oil and fry the garlic and beansprouts for about a minute. Add the noodles, oyster sauce, sugar, coriander and season. Finally mix in the crab meat.

This makes a good weeknight supper (subject to your access to crab), but if you want to be all cheffy you can roll about a tbsp of the mixture in spring roll pastry, brush with oil and cook in the oven at 200 degrees for 10 minutes.

The nice thing about these 2 ideas is that you use all of the crab – meat for the noodles and shell for the bisque. And once you’ve worked up the courage to dispatch a live crab you’ll want to use every last bit.