A Chinese Poet in 300 AD had this fitting ode to the crab;
“Holding a glass of wine in the right hand,
Grasping a claw in the left hand,
And drifting along in a boat filled with wine,
Ah, my life has been totally satisfied.”
February in Northern California means a month-long celebration of the world famous Dungeness Crab. Its sweet delicate flavor lends itself to a variety of wines whether you are cracking it on your picnic table to eat right out of the shell, or in more complex dishes, like fish stews. I grew up eating the larger northern variety that cold waters produce, Alaskan King Crab or Snow Crab.
Everyday, from February through June, thousands of pounds of crab are unloaded at Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. Fisherman’s Wharf and the Dungeness crab have become, over the years, a symbol of San Francisco just like the cable cars, the hills and the bridges.
Alessandro Baccari, the director of the Fisherman’s Wharf Historical Society, remembers visiting the Warf every year during crab season. “When I was growing up, the majority of the fishermen at Fisherman’s Wharf were Italian. The Wharf was nicknamed “Italy Harbor.”
Great was the excitement in the mornings when the boats came in, deep in crab and fish, grimy and wet, nets in disarray, and the crews tired but lustfully joyous if the night had been successful. It was exciting to watch the fishermen climb up onto the docks with their legs encased in hip-high rubber boots, their heads covered with knitted caps, in colors identified with the fishing village in Sicily where they came from.
With the beginning of the crab season, Fisherman’s Wharf becomes one of those rare locations where history, culture and ethnic pride form a distinctive blend that sets it apart from other places, and gives it strength and vitality all its own.”
Last weekend, the second annual San Francisco Crab and Wine Marketplace at Fort Mason brought some of that history alive. There were over thirty wineries, mostly small to medium producers, represented from as far south as Paso Robles and as far north as St. Helena as well as some of the city’s well known restaurants, and cooking demonstrations by the editors at Sunset Magazine.
Of course serving the quintessential San Franciscan meal of fresh cracked crab with a warm loaf of sourdough, and a chilled bottle of Chardonnay may mean there is no need to look any further. But with recipes like Moose Restaurant’s Chef Jeffrey Amber’s Dungeness Crab Salad with Tangerines and Ginger Honey, MoMo’s Crab Pot Pie, or Sunset Magazine’s Captain Bobino’s Stew, the choice of wine expands. The stew used sherry in the broth, and that paired nicely with subtleness of the crab and halibut, a Gewurztraminer or a Viognier would be wonderful with Asian influences, and a crisp Chablis or Sauvignon Blanc would pair nicely with a creamy pot pie. I enjoyed eating crab cakes and garlic fries with a good Zinfandel.
The Dungeness Crab can be a feisty critter to cook. One chef related trying to get a crab to release her thumb, shaking her hand vigorously and sending the crab scuttling under the counter. Many markets will cook and crack crab for you, or for a hefty price you can buy it shelled. But there really is nothing like getting it fresh off the boats, driving by your local winery for a perfect pairing and filling your kitchen with the briny aroma and flavors of our local oceans.