We spent a foggy weekend in autumn searching for moeche: soft-shelled, green lagoon crabs that change their coats for a fleeting moment, every autumn and spring. Twice a year, the moeche shed their hard shells and for just a matter of hours, before the shells regrow, they are “soft-shelled”–at just this moment, the crabs must be caught.
I wasn’t even sure it would be possible to find what I was looking for, but we booked a hotel on the Giudecca–the long, thin island that lies just below the belly of Venice’s fish (have you ever noticed that the city looks like a fish from above?)–and waited for news from a friend of a friend who knew someone. This someone was not just anyone, but one of the so-called “last of the moecanti”–the last family of fishermen who have farmed and harvested lagoon crabs for centuries on Giudecca.
I was pinching myself as Manuel Bognolo pulled up to pick us up on Denis, his bragozzo or boat, right around the corner from the Hilton Molino Stucky, an ex-flour mill where Manuel used to play with his friends as a boy. He took us through the canals and around the rarely-seen underside of the Giudecca to the shack–unreachable by foot–where his brothers pick through the crabs one by one. The crabs that have already regrown their new shells are left to slowly slide and crawl sideways into a large bucket to be tipped back into the lagoon. To me, all the crabs look the same, but the moecanti can spot the moeche in an instant, just by the shade of their bellies. One glance and the soft-shelled crab is quickly swept up and placed into a separate bucket.
What followed will remain etched in my memory as possibly the best day of my life. Manuel took a bowl full of moeche right from the shack, stepped back onto the boat where he had set up an enviably well-equipped makeshift kitchen and fried them.
A recipe popular in Venetian restaurants and cookbooks calls for placing the crabs in a bowl full of beaten eggs and waiting for them to greedily eat it all before frying them, but Manuel insists that’s not the real way to prepare this Venetian specialty. His suspicion is that this is a tradition from the terraferma, the mainland, as a way to stretch the meal and fill bellies, countering the need to buy more crabs (which cost about 80 euro a kilo). Besides, Manuel adds, eggs are more plentiful in the countryside than they are in the lagoon. It’s certainly not the way fishermen would make it. I am convinced. Manuel takes about 100 grams (312 oz) of moeche per person and dusts them lightly but completely in flour. Then he fries them in plenty of vegetable oil at 175°C (345°F) until the shells change colour from lagoon green to deep red. And that’s it.
He opened a bottle of Ribolla Gialla and we talked while we ate and sipped, floating on the foggy lagoon, about his family, their history, climate change, how things have changed in Venice. In the 1990s, they could bring in 10–12,000 kg (22–26,500 lb) of crabs in one day. The day that I was there, they found only 3 kg (6 lb 10 oz), but, I’m told, spring is usually a better season. Manuel talks with romance about the cycle of the moeche, the male crabs, who change their shells as they grow–once in spring and once in fall. The female, la masanetta, undergoes the same shell change in the summer. This is the moment the moecanti fishermen stay away: it’s mating season. Manuel describes the way the male crab, after mating, tucks the soft-shell female under one leg to protect her until her shell grows back, the same way the lion of San Marco–the symbol of Venice–holds his book.
I’ve never tasted anything like these moeche, but there is one more secret Manuel lets me in on. He has served us a specialty normally set aside for the fishermen themselves: strapasae or in Italian, stroppiciate–the moeche that are the softest, but that don’t make it to restaurants that ask for the prettiest looking, pristine crabs. Strapasae, even though they are full of water, are much more delicious and the fishermen get to take them home. We finish the last, delightful, crunchy bites and the final drops in our glasses, and glide back over the water at sunset. I can’t help but think the taste of these moeche were pure Venice.
Adapted from Cinnamon and Salt: Cicchetti in Venice: Small Bites from the Lagoon City, by Emiko Davies, published by Hardie Grant Books 2022