> Features

A day at Whitby Crab Company

A day at Whitby Crab Company

by Isaac Parham 13 August 2015

Whitby crab is famed for its quality so Isaac Parham took a trip to Whitby Crab Company to find out what makes it so special, and how it is produced. An eye-opening experience with claws and crab meat aplenty.

I’m not sure what I expected of my visit to Whitby Crab Company. Perhaps I imagined a small clifftop cabin tended by one lonely fishermen, delicately preparing the crabs one-by-one until he has enough in his bucket to sell to the local restaurants and cafés.

In which case I should have known better. These days, Whitby crab is a seriously in demand product – processing has to be swift and efficient.

The first surprise is that the company doesn’t actually operate from Whitby, but the nearby coastal town of Staithes, in an industrial complex blessed with glorious views of the surrounding moors and coastline. Here, I find a band of merry men preparing the products that will end up in locations as far away as Billingsgate Market, Lowestoft and even Devon.

While Whitby crab may yield the sweetest and most delicate white meat, the production methods are unavoidably gruesome. So look away now if you prefer the more romantic yarn...

After being caught off of Whitby in baited pots and collected by trawlers, the crabs are brought to the Staithes factory alive. Indeed, some will be sold on this way. The unlucky ones are taken straight to what my softly spoken guide, Norman, calls the ‘kill tanks’. I watch on as he creates a tepid bath – equal parts boiling and cold water - that will kill the crabs in anywhere between 10 and 30 minutes. The temperature, Norman explains, matters greatly – too cold and the crabs’ miserable end will be prolonged; too hot and their limbs will fall off from the shock.

Being careful to avoid stepping on the carapaces that litter the floor, I move into the next room along, where Norman takes care of boiling the (now deceased) crabs and spraying them clean in a wide basin as Magic FM crackles away nostalgically in the background.

“I only meant to stay here for a summer season but I’ve been here 13 years now,” he explains, unfazed by the intense heat and ominous hum emanating from the pair of boilers in the corner of the room. “I remember they put a crabstick in my first pay packet and I had to say to them “If I wanted crab I’d take it straight from here!”.

Having grown up and worked in the area for decades, Norman has a better understanding than most of the ways in which the fishing industry has changed in recent times. He laments the sanctions placed on local fisheries which has caused many to go out of business, while also ruminating on the fluctuating nature of demand in a seasonal tourist town.

When it comes to his own product, though, he is undoubtedly proud – as keen to teach me how to distinguish the crabs’ sex (different patterns on the underside of their bodies) as he is to tell me they have previously supplied meat to Gordon Ramsay.

The next part of the process is overseen by a lean, younger man called Gavin, who weighs them into 30kg portions before ripping off their limbs and claws with all the rhythmic violence of a boxer hammering broadsides into a heavy bag.

The crabs arrive at Whitby Crab Company
The crabs arrive at Whitby Crab Company
Removing the limbs and claws
Removing the limbs and claws

The buckets of claws and bodies are then taken through to a back room with a long stainless steel worktable. Here an avuncular man named Stef flicks out the brown meat found in the crabs’ abdomens with a small knife (white meat is removed later), only breaking his rapid pace to occasionally hose himself down at the sink. On a good day he will get through 900 crabs in six and a half hours.

Whitby Crab Company doesn’t just sell meat and live crabs, but ready-made dressed crabs, too. By way of demonstration, Stef takes a hollowed out shell and fills it with both white and brown meat, adding a couple of crab claw as garnish. “You need to taste the crab before you can write about it,” he says, handing me the dressed crab before picking up his knife and returning to his station to winkle out some more brown meat.

Removing the brown crab meat
Removing the brown crab meat
The empty crab shells
The empty crab shells

With eight well-drilled men to call upon, Whitby Crab Company can process one and a half tonnes of crab for dispatch each day. Which is an incredible amount when you consider every stage of that process is done by hand. It may be a messy process but it’s also an incredibly efficient one.

And it has to be. As our appetite for regional delicacies like Whitby crab grows, so too must the companies responsible for production. Scale up to keep up. Perhaps this would have once been one man working away in a lonely clifftop cottage but times have changed; demand has changed.

We have all been sold the artisan dream. We want small. We want independent. But we also want it now, at not too high a cost. Bio-dynamic wine. Rare Costa Rican coffee. Not just crab but Whitby crab. The whole thing seems unsustainable.

But that’s an argument for another day. Besides, Whitby Crab Company seems to be ticking along nicely and Norman, Gavin, Stef and the rest of the team seem pretty happy with their lot. They are friendly and helpful throughout my visit.

As I collect my stuff from the forecourt I ease into one last conversation with Norman, who tells me of the inherent danger of trawling out on the North Sea: “One bad wind down from Iceland and they can be easily blown onto the rocks.”

So, I ask him, is he glad he works on this side of the business?

“Oh yeah. Oh yeah,” he repeats, before pointing ironically at his wellies which are submerged in a swamp of sea water and crab detritus.

Sometimes the grim truth is all the more refreshing.

Get in touch

A day at Whitby Crab Company


Please enter text

The message must have at least characters

The message must be less than characters

Unfortunately, a problem occured and we are not able to send your comment. Please try again later.

Technical details: