I had my first taste of ‘Crab Imperial’ (or ‘Crab Au Gratin’ (in French)) when I visited St-Pierre & Miquelon in 1982. I have since done my version of this recipe, which is seasoned with Chilli kelp instead of salt & cayenne pepper, more times than I care to remember, as it proves to still be a favourite amongst family and friends. No doubt they have lots of seaweed there, but it didn’t seem to feature in the local fare…
Views from St-Pierre & Miquelon
I lived in Montreal, Canada then, and the French Islands offered a little European escape right off the east coast of Canada. The archipelago consists of 8 small islands, with only 2 inhabited (St-Pierre and Miquelon-Langlade) 25km Southwest of Newfoundland. They are all that is left to France from the days of colonisation where Quebec was also a French colony (16th century). The islands now have less than 6000 population and the depletion of fish stock makes it hard for people to earn a living, therefore tourism plays quite a significant role in their economy. Although the winters are less severe than in neighbouring Canada, the island’s location at the confluence of the cold Labrador current & the warm Gulf Stream brings a large amount of precipitation and at least 100 days of fog a year (mainly at the heart of summer, during June & July). One is wise to always allow extra days to get there and back as you never know if the planes will fly on the day they are meant to.
Arriving at St-Pierre (capital) is like entering any small town in France. As a French overseas collectivity, the islands is supported with all the public services available in metropolitan France – as I remember it, even the French telephone service left a lot to be desired.
The main activities on the islands are tramping and bird watching. The Grand Barachois, a large lagoon in Miquelon, is a unique ecosystem with a large population of seals. One sunny day we set out to walk from our farm stay in Miquelon along the tombolo isthmus of sand to Langlade (25km) with the idea of taking the bus back at the end of the day. We were assured by our hosts that there was no need to tell anyone about our plan as the bus goes to Langlade in the morning everyday and comes back at night, around 4pm, as steady as the sun rises. We had a fantastic day walking on the sandy road, looking for wild horses, watching the birds & picnicking leisurely on the dunes – little did we know that we would have to walk all the way back ! Well, we waited for the bus at the designated location, but to no avail, as the bus never came. It had broken down and we could only walk back as there was nowhere to stay. We arrived after dark to our worried hosts and went directly to bed, without the French 4 course dinner, completely exhausted.
This little adventure didn’t deter us from enjoying the atmosphere and the food which are just as typically French as if you were on the continent. Surprisingly, most of the supplies are shipped from France so I was really excited to acquire many kitchen utensils of French make and a few new twists on local fish preparation. This crab dish is a good example.
I remember that the presentation and the aroma for this particular dish was such that it got me salivating before the food actually hit my taste buds ! The crab mixture was spooned into the cleaned body of the animal and sent to the oven until the cheese melted golden and bubbly. It was nested in a white dish, surrounded with crusty French bread, yummy !
First let me tell you about the crabs.
It is a spectacular effect if you can get fresh crabs, cook them, patiently empty the body andclaws for the meat, and clean and use the top shell to present the dish ! In St-Pierre & Miquelon they would use the snow crab which is abundant there. In New Zealand, there are several varieties of crab but the most commercially available one is the Paddle Crab.
(Refer to this video to get the meat out of the crab). But whether you use the top shell or an oven proof dish to present this recipe, the end result on the taste buds will be memorable.
Now, here’s my recipe:
3 tbsp butter
2 shallots, minced fine
1 tender celery stalk, minced fine
¼ cup all-purpose flour
2 cups heavy cream
2 tins crab meat chunks (big pieces)
2 tbsp dry sherry
Freshly ground black pepper
½ tsp (or to taste) Chilli Kelp
¼ cup fresh parsley, chopped fine
Grated cheese (gruyere or other firm cheese)
Chopped chives for garnish
Preheat oven to 200 C.
In a large saucepan over medium heat, melt 3 tablespoons of butter. Gently fry shallot and celery until translucent.
Remove from heat and whisk in flour.
Pour in 1/2 cup of heavy cream and whisk well, return to heat and stir until thick & creamy.
Remove from heat and pour in remaining cream. Stir in sherry, crabmeat and parsley. Adjust seasoning with chilli kelp and freshly ground black pepper.
Spoon the mixture into 6 large individual shells. Garnish each dish with a sprinkle of Chilli Kelp Seasoning, grated cheese and chopped chives.
Bake in preheated oven for 20 minutes or until top is browned and bubbly.
SERVE with fresh crusty bread.
Click on the link to find out more about Pacific Harvest’s Kelp range.
Chilli Kelp is a seaweed seasoning full of flavour with medium heat and an appetising red colour. The Kelp in it looks like cracked pepper and becomes soft when exposed to the moisture in food.
Kelp is an excellent salt alternative and is the best source of iodine in nature and amongst seaweeds. It tastes salty with less sodium than salt. Like all seaweed, it is also very nutritious, and an excellent source of many minerals & trace elements, especially iron and magnesium. Kelp also contains many vitamins including B12.