May 10th, 2009

A crab in the hand is worth two in the mud

By KENNEDY WARNE

Rogerio de Sousa’s fish-processing plant was up to its gills in shrimp when we arrived next morning. The sweating crew of a shrimp boat, just in from nine days at sea, was unloading crate after crate of fat pink prawns. While these succulent-looking monsters up to 15 cm long were being stowed and iced, a dozen women and children at a table in the shade peeled a smaller variety of shrimp—known as “seven whiskers”—to be snap-frozen in the blast freezer.

Crossing the channel to the mangroves.

ELAINE CORETS
Crossing the channel to the mangroves.

Rogerio and his parrot.

KENNEDY WARNE
Rogerio and his parrot.

Meanwhile, Rogerio was showing us his pet parrot, Pedro. It cackled in perfect imitation when anyone laughed, and spontaneously croaked various Portuguese words, which, of course, were lost on me.

Soon it was decreed that the tide had fallen sufficiently to go crabbing, and Rogerio introduced us to Seu Manuel, “Sir Manuel,” a small, whippet-thin old man with the leathery skin that comes from a lifetime on and about the sea. He had been collecting caranguejo for 30 years, he said—“so I am just a beginner.”

On his crab-catching arm he wore a denim gauntlet up to the shoulder. A string around his waste—his “tool belt”—held a dozen short cords for tying up the live crabs and a canister of mosquito repellent. He carried a hook for reaching into the deepest of burrows.

We took a rowboat across the channel and squelched and slithered through glutinous grey mud to the crab zone. Dense thickets of prop roots, head-high and more, formed a maze of interlocking arches through which Seu Manuel nimbly squeezed himself or clambered over, muttering to himself and stopping every few steps to plunge his arm down a burrow. He moved so spryly through the mangroves I thought of him as a Brazilian leprechaun.

Seu Manuel gets down to business, reaching into the crab´s lair.

KENNEDY WARNE
Seu Manuel gets down to business, reaching into the crab´s lair.


Sometimes he softened the mud a little by treading it with his feet, then lay down on the grey gloop to reach up to his shoulder into the crab’s lair. Sometimes it looked as if he were trying to insert his entire body down the hole. About half of the burrows he tested produced a crab. If it was feminino it was set free—no females are taken by the collectors. As well as being much smaller than the males, they represent, of course, the future of the stock. Masculino crabs were tied, four to a cord, which is the way they are sold in the markets. Seventy percent of the crabs caught in the Parnaíba Delta go to Fortaleza, the capital of Ceará, where crab feasts are standard fare at the beach.
Author with his prize catch.

JEREMY WARNE
Author with his prize catch.


After watching and photographing Seu Manuel work for a while, I announced that I would like to try. He glanced at me with wry amusement, then pointed to a wet patch of mud beside a prop root and went off to catch more of his own. I pushed my arm in, trying two or three routes past a tangle of mangrove feeding roots that blocked the way, then found the main hole, or toca, and reached the full length of my arm. Nothing. The hole seemed to go on forever.

I tried another spot. The burrow entrances are easy to recognise, once you have your eye in. They are covered with sloppy mud that looks like a small puddle. This time, again at the fullest extent of my arm, I felt something prickly and twiggy at the end of the tunnel. Surely the legs of a crab. I wriggled and twisted my hand until I had whatever it was in grasp and pulled it to the surface, hoping that the pincers weren’t in nipping range of my fingers. I had seen Seu Manuel bring one up with the pincer clamped on to his finger. When he shook the crab off, the pincer broke away from the crab before it let go of his hand.

I looked at the clump of black mud and crustacean I had in my nervous fingers. Bingo! A big male. I manoeuvred it so I had it pincer-side-out and held it up proudly. Surely it was a record. “Grande, no?” I said in my pidgin Portuguese. The old man grunted and nodded. Seen it all before.

I caught another one, but it was feminino so I released it with my best wishes for the next “Carnival of crabs.” May it produce muitíssimo offspring and keep alive this colourful traditional fishery—one more gift of the mangroves.

Tags: ,

One Response to “A crab in the hand is worth two in the mud”

  1. Dean says:

    That’s what I call strong arming for your dinner! Good job mate!