Friday, June 28, 2013

Crab Report With J.M. Clayton

Where it begins
Recently chefs from Black Restaurant Group took a trip with team members from Congressional Seafood up to Cambridge, MD to visit the oldest operating crab house in the world, J.M. Clayton Seafood Company.  That's right, the oldest crab processor in the world is right here in our backyard.  It was eye-opening to be able to take a trip right off the docks into the Choptank River and observe a timeless sight; a Maryland crabber running his trot line seeking out the elusive and world-renowned Chesapeake Blue Crab.

This ancient profession has been in operation for centuries and the equipment hasn't really changed all that much.  All you need is a line, a couple of buoys, some good bait, and a lot of patience and a strong back.  The best crabbers don't miss a beat, or a crab, while running their line and grading for size and quality.  After working the morning and most of the day the crabbers pull their boats right up to the docks at Clayton to sell their catch.  Clayton processes around 30,000 lbs of crab a day, though lately the harvest numbers have been down.  This can explain why MD crab meat prices have not matched lows from last year.  Most people blame the cool water temperatures and the relatively late spring and summer.  The particular crabber we followed only came back with 4 bushels, not enough to supply a busy restaurant's weekend crab meat needs.
Hard at Work

At Clayton the crabs are cooked in massive steamers, holding up to 12 bushels at a time, and then hand picked by employees with impressive speed and amazing preciseness.  The picking room was the lynchpin of the operation.  Mostly women, they picked at record speeds with such accuracy that if you blinked you could miss an entire crab being processed.  Some of the employees had been there for over 50 years, their nimble fingers moving with a dexterity that would prove impossible for persons a quarter of their age.  The meat is separated by jumbo and lump sizes and the claws are cracked separately.  The remaining shell and fat are processed into a "bater" meat, great for adding flavor to a variety of dishes.

The most telling indicator of quality was the sweet, clean flavor of the crabmeat we sampled.  It doesn't get any better than eating crab right out of the water and with Clayton crab meat that is exactly what you are getting.  From water, to dock, to steamer, to picker, to purchase, the chain is unadulterated and totally traceable.  The facility is ancient, but top notch and very clean.  The crabs go directly from the water to the steamer, and then are picked clean by some of the most skilled professionals I have ever witnessed.  What you get when you buy crab meat like this is an industry standard that has stood the test of time.  Maryland crab at its finest.  For more history on J.M. Clayton visit HERE.
Huge Steamers
The Prize!


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