On our recent cooking class our hosts delivered a very special seasonal treat as we worked – a plate of hot moeche fritte, fried soft shell crabs. These unique crabs are a seasonal Venetian treat, as they are in the US. In Venice, they are referred to as moleche, moeche, or moeca in Venetian dialect. These crabs are a different species than found here in the US, they are smaller (about 2-3 inches), and are available twice a year – in the fall and spring. Maseneta indicates the female crab (with shell), which is particularly valued at the end of summer when, after having changed and having mated, she is mature and filled with eggs.
The moleche fishermen of Venice (molecanti) are masters as managing the molting process of their harvest. Raising crabs is a strictly local activity, passed down from generation to generation. The tradition is practiced in Burano and on the Giudecca but until the second half of the last century the raising of moeche was a secret known only to the crab farmers of Chioggia. The crabs are caught by placing nets with funnel shaped traps in the waters at the beginning of the season.
The fishermen separate the crabs from the fish and bring them back to big warehouses where they select the crabs about to undergo their seasonal change and place them in a particular tub. There is only a very brief 5-6 hour period in which the shells are soft enough to eat, as continued contact with water will harden them in a matter of hours. The trick is to identify those crabs that are just about to molt from those that are not; the former are stored in tanks until they have molted, at which point they are taken to markets such as the amazing fish market at Rialto. The latter are held back in a separate tub until their molting time has come. The crab stocks were almost depleted in the 1980s. Today they are farmed in various locations around Venice, and it now is an important industry in the region.
The fascination that the Venetians have with this strange crab has made its way into local expressions. The Lion of Saint Mark, the symbol of the Venetian republic, when represented frontally framed by its wings is called “Leon i moeca”, the crab lion. When a person repeatedly forgets to bring a promised gift to another person, one can say: “anca se’l deventa gransio no importa”, “even if it becomes a crab, it doesn’t matter”, in other words, even if too much time has gone by and the moeca’s shell grew back, the gift would still be appreciated. Also the expression “Andar in brodo de masenete”, “to become a crab broth” is used when something disappears, like masenete when they are cooked too long. And Venetians, when encouraging one another not to despair, say “in mancansa de masenete, bone anca e sate!”, “If we have no crabs, well, the legs are good tool!”
The most common way of preparing moeche is fritte, or deep fried.
12 live moeche
2 eggs, beaten
Oil for frying – peanut, sunflower, vegetable oil
Wash the moeche and immerse them in the eggs. Season with salt and pepper, cover with a plate and let stand in the refrigerator for about 2 hours.
Place about 1 1/2 inches of oil in a heavy saucepan, and heat over medium high heat to about 325°F.
Place some flour in a bowl and season with salt and pepper. Remove the crabs from the eggs and dredge in the flour. Fry in hot oil for a few minutes until they are golden. Place on paper towels to drain, season with salt and serve with polenta slices and a glass of prosecco.