Spanner in the Works

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-By John Boley

Do crabs think we walk sideways? They are certainly rather odd-looking creatures and it must have been an especially hungry or curious early hominid who first considered eating the delights under that hard, shiny carapace. There are numerous varieties of crab: king, blue, hermit, Alaska, and Spanner are just a few. But wait a second: Spanner?

The Spanner Crab, so called because of its rather distinctive claw shape, is found almost exclusively in the seas off the coast of Australia and chiefly on the east coast, from northern New South Wales up to northern Queensland. Spanner crabs have long, almost goblet-shaped, bright orange (even before cooking) shells and can usually be found close inshore, often buried in sand. Spanner crab meat is coarser in texture than other species and has a relatively sweet flavour.

Another feature of the spanner crab is that, along with other exotic seafoods such as Moreton Bay bugs, yabbies and a host of others, it is almost totally unknown outside the region. And that is something an Italian-born chef is working hard to change. Max Pantacchini is in charge of business development for small but thriving Ceas Spanner Crab, a company set up by Tasmania’s Rockliff family to catch, process and market spanners to the world.

Max is an enthusiast and his ambition is to position spanners as a premium delicacy. “I am a chef by trade and I came to Australia with Hilton International in Cairns 25 years ago. I have a lot of friends around Australia and round the world that I can get in touch with and we just go to places and present the product to chefs. They are amazed by the crab.”

Set up in 2007, Ceas, based on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, is the largest spanner crab producer in Australia. Ceas is a family owned and operated business, run by Neville and Helen Rockliff who hail from Tasmania where the family is world renowned for its seafood and aquaculture ventures. The company holds a substantial portion of the quota licence for the entire fishery, which ensures a more consistent supply and superior product than anywhere else.

Before Ceas started, says Max, those fishing for spanners concentrated on the live market, sending live crabs to Asia. “We believe the Australian market had only ever been given access to lower grade crabs, with all the top quality product being exported. We are doing our best to change that and ensure every Australian, as well as the world, can enjoy our A-grade premium Spanner Crab.” But Ceas came to the party with three 22 metre boats, its own fleet enabling the company to “control our own destiny. We have got the majority of the fishing quota with our three vessels, plus we also unload 10 to 12 local smaller fishing vessels from smaller companies.”

Because Ceas has relatively large and strong boats, “we can pretty much fish for 11 months of the year and can fish in winds of up to 50 knots.” The twelfth month, December, is an officially notified ‘close season’ to promote breeding and preservation of stocks. Spanner crabs are caught using a dilly – a small frame with mesh in the middle, which is lowered into the water where the crabs are (which can largely be determined using GPS, which in turn minimises the chance of any damage to a seabed location). The dilly “just sits on top of the sand – we don’t disturb the bottom because we are not scraping, and we are only catching spanner crabs – nothing else gets trapped in a net. After a decent period for the crabs (who, it must be said, are not super-intelligent) to walk into the mesh and get their claws stuck in it, the dilly is hauled up and sorting can commence.

Having its own fleet, says Max, enables Ceas to ensure that skippers control the quality of the catch and only land crabs of good size (authorities stipulate minimum size). They also catch only males – females are put back to ensure breeding stock. After sorting, the caught crabs are placed in baskets and then in refrigerated tanks, sprayed with seawater and generally pampered – this helps them to stay calm, unstressed and more succulent. These controls and the care in handling is what results, says Max, in “only A-grade crabs being supplied to a market that has begun to fall in love with them.”

From his own experience in the food and beverage industry around the world, Max knew that spanner crabs frequently used to end up in buffets “because it looks really nice. But when people would taste them the quality would not be there because they would be eating into a B-grade crab. What we have been doing is selling A-grade crabs to the local market and they love the quality of it.”

Now spanner crab is being introduced to the high-end F&B market and also direct to the consumer in retail, wholesale and restaurants. Max explains that Ceas is branding its output as strongly as possible to distinguish it from any competitors. “We need people to know they are getting our own high-class product.” One of Ceas’ innovations was to look carefully at how to process the crab to make it more attractive not only in taste but in usage. The team settled on the ‘sous-vide’ method of cooking, a French term in essence simply meaning ‘under vacuum’ and used in many commercial kitchens around the world. It involves vacuum packing the food before immersing it in water at a set temperature for a long period. Simply put, the premise is that since cooking involves a computation of time and temperature, if you cook for longer you can use a lower temperature; it’s not quite simple, but many scientific experiments determined rules on both factors that not only eliminated potential health risks such as botulism but also retained optimum flavour and texture and – a crucial element of cooking many foods but especially seafood – avoided drying the food out too much. Max describes the result as a taste somewhere between prawn and crayfish but all of its own.

Ceas markets a 100g pack of cooked spanner crab in Australia at around the ten-dollar mark which contains a mix of body and claw meat. This is ready to eat and can simply be added to a salad or eaten with good bread – or any of a hundred alternative recipes that Max can suggest. He spends a lot of time travelling to trade shows, or dropping into hotels in cities all over the world where he knows someone in the kitchen, and demonstrating the product and its delicacy. Last year, at Europe’s top food fair in France, Ceas made a presentation of raw spanner crab, with option of marinating – a kind of carpaccio, if you’re up on your culinary terms. “We do another version where we pan fry it and the customer would try it and would compare it to scallops and scampi; by pan frying the meat it gains other tastes.”

Ceas supplies to wholesalers, who, he says, do a great job of distribution around all the main cities. Max visits chefs, who then contact their wholesaler to buy the product – he won’t supply direct. A number of prestigious establishments have chefs who “love the product and ask us where they can get it.” But individual consumers are also catered for (pun intended) with some retail outlets listed on the company website.

Max points out that another advantage of the spanner crab – in terms of taste and also acceptability – is that it is not farmed. “It is a wild product and not coming from aquaculture.” He reckons in a few years’ time almost everything “will come from farms, aquaculture or a paddock” and that wild caught products, especially from the sea, will be at a premium, sought after by anyone who can afford it because of its undoubtedly superior taste. He cites some chicken reared on the farm of his friends in France on a recent trip, that tasted infinitely better than the supermarket version; many readers will likewise know of the taste and texture difference between farmed and (nowadays all but unobtainable) wild salmon. Ceas will remain a “pristine water business. It will be great and I have had a great feeling about this for a long time because the wild product will become very exceptional.” He is not the only one who is pessimistic about the amount of wild-caught seafood to come in future years.

The future for spanner crabs and Ceas in particular is “amazing. When I arrived here one year ago they already had a good system in place but we are now pushing a great business into a great direction where we can spread it and all the promoting we have done is now starting to pay off. Ceas holds the quota for around half the available annual Queensland catch and has the ability to expand without compromising the relatively exclusive, premium nature.” Max divides the market into domestic, live export and meat export and the three are roughly equal, but he is confident the best potential lies within the Australian market, which Ceas is busy opening up. So now you know what a spanner crab is, go try some.

Oh, and to answer the riddle: unlike most other crabs, the Spanner does not walk sideways!

Making Sense of Management

Management is the art, or science, of getting things done through people. Sounds fairly straightforward – except for the fact that people are not robots waiting to do our bidding. People have their own minds, motivations, and goals. So how do managers keep operations – and the people behind them – running as planned?

September 22, 2018, 6:07 PM AEST