Crayfish basted with basil butter

Crayfish and champagne have a lot in common. They cost too much and their joys have as much to do with the anticipation as the taking. I have always believed champagne tastes better in the mind than on the tongue.

It’s a most clever marketing wheeze. If champagne was flat and cheap nobody would have heard of it. Whoever decided that a generally dry, mildly yeasty drink from a generally dry, hardly yeasty region of France should be given life through bubbles and a high price was a marketing genius.

The bubbles give it that ’something special’ feeling and the price makes it doubly exclusive. I would much prefer to drink a top-shelf white wine than a top champagne, but there is nothing like champagne to lift the spirits.

And it’s just the same with crayfish. You can’t beat a cray for anticipation, but there are plenty of tastier fish in the sea, and most of them are cheaper as well. Crays have always been expensive because they are usually captured in rather complicated cages rather than pack’em — in nets. One advantage crayfish has over champagne is that you can get more than one go at a live, bubbling cray — the only extra that comes from champagne is a mother and father of a hangover.

I am inclined to the view that the soup, or stew, or sauce, or whatever dish you prefer to try with a crayfish stock, is as good or better than the fish itself, but that’s an argument which can only be resolved after you have attacked the fish with a gusto, and then made the stock from its extras.

At one level, cooking crayfish is the easiest job in the world — you just toss them in a pot of water, bring the lot to the boil, and cook for about 10 minutes. But if you try to assist the crustacean’s flavour, to bring out some of its hidden nuances, then you can run into bother.

150g unsalted butter, softened

handful of basil leaves, cut in half — If basil is not available, go for tarragon as second best, chives third.

juice of 1 lime or lemon

black pepper

1 live crayfish, about 850g

The easiest way to kill a cray is to plunge a knife between its eyes, then split it through the middle down its length. You can send it to sleep in the freezer if you wish. Clean the carapace, saving the mustard for a soup or sauce, although long-time cray fans have been known to toss it down as soon as the cray is cut. You’ll find that 850g is a good size, as it will fit in most home pans and won’t need much cooking — thus ensuring the exposed flesh does not dry out.


Heat the oven to flat out.


With your fingers, fiddle with the butter until it softens, then mix the basil with the butter, lime juice and several turns of the pepper mill, and half fill the carapace of each crayfish half with most of the basil butter, keeping about 50g in reserve.


There is nothing fancy about the cooking. Lay each half — with its shell side down — in a metal pan and cook on high heat on top of the stove for a couple of minutes. That’s the easy part. The secret to cooking these babies successfully is to make sure the flesh is kept moist and just cooked — not undercooked, just cooked.


Put the lot in the oven. Every few minutes, open the oven and wipe the flesh with the reserved basil butter.


The cray is ready when the flesh is firm, but still gives to the touch — about 10 minutes. It should not have browned at all, and the butter sitting in the cray will not be sizzling; if you get to the roasted, browned stage, with the butter sizzling, the flesh will be dry and tough.


Remove from the oven making a lot of noise, and a lot of fuss as you do it. Pour the melted butter and herbs from the carapace into a jug, and remove the flesh from the shell. It won’t hurt if you use an oven glove.


Present with the legs, for all to grab, with the butter poured over the flesh. Keep the shell for a soup, later in the week. Sprinkle the flesh with extra lime juice and black pepper, and serve with chunky, crusty bread.

Note: If you are more disciplined and less of a show-off, you will keep the legs for tomorrow’s soup.

WINE: What do you serve? Champagne of course! If you can afford French champagne, go for it. Some Australian makers are nipping at their heels. I like Croser, Yellowglen Cuvee Victoria, Domain Chandon and Seppelt Vintage Brut.