a true regional specialty
Soft-shell crabs are one of the true regional specialties of our area. Crabs molt their shells a few times during the late spring and early summer. Each time they molt, they store fat and-- in the process-- become extra flavorful. Once a crab molts its shell, the new casing will harden within 24 hours, so capturing a soft-shell crab is tricky to time.
Crabbers have a deft ability to time when a crab is ready to molt. Usually, they'll catch hard-shells, then watch them in a pool (night and day!) until they molt. The molted soft-shells need to be sent to the restaurant within hours, then served in an extremely short amount of time. Soft-shells can be frozen and shipped all over the world, but we believe they are best tasted close to the source, un-frozen, and within a very short time of being plucked from the water.
Crabs usually have what crabbers call a "Big Run" near the first full moon in May (which was May 10th this year). When the crabs are active during the Big Run (their mating season) they release hormones that trigger molting, and they can easily be caught in traps and checked for their stage in the molting process.
Once a crab is taken out of the water, its shell-hardening stops. Some scientists think this is because crabs absorb calcium from the ocean to harden their shells: Remove the crab from the water and there will be no more calcium to absorb. Voila! Soft-shells.
Crabs also send more calcium into their bodies during the molting process, which may be a possible key to the future hardening of their newest shell. When the crab is a soft-shell, part of the reason it tastes so flavorful is because its physiology (including higher calcium levels) is much different than when it was a hard-shell.
If you leave a soft-shell in the water too long, it will turn into a "paper shell," which can also be a delicacy when it is cooked in a particular way.
After the Big Run crab mating season, you can still catch soft-shells through September, though they are much more plentiful in May-June.
At Fleurie, we are currently serving soft-shells with English Peas, Balsamic Vinaigrette, Toasted Almonds, Corn Shoots, and Brown Butter.
The soft shell-crab is one of the special regional dishes that you will only find near certain types of watersheds. Soft-shell crabs help to define Virginia's local cuisine.