Tuesday, April 19, 2016

A Bite of the Lagoon: Crab Season Around Mazzorbo

A line of metal upright pipes support branches to which ten submerged crab traps are tied

It's moeche (soft-shell crab) season in the lagoon and as you pass through the Mazzorbo Canal on your way to or from Burano on the number 12 vaporetto line if you look carefully down the broad short channel that branches off it in a northwesterly direction you may catch a glimpse of some of the crab traps (crab crates, really) pictured above and below rigged up along its banks.

Not far off this broad short channel there are more traps lining the banks of channels too narrow and shallow for any vaporetto. Oddly enough, it's along these banks that we happened upon three signs posted on a chain-link fence rather imperfectly enclosing a few simple, low-roofed fishermen's structures. One, employing the iconography common in many churches in Venice, forbade the use of photo cameras. A second, in the same manner, forbade the use of video cameras. The third simply declared "STOP STALKING."

It's not the kind of area you'd expect to be subjected to heavy tourist traffic, but I suppose there's not a single waterway anywhere in the lagoon these days that's not likely to be trawled by some commercial boat or other promising to take its clients out of the usual channels. After all, who among us doesn't crave a unique personal experience of a place--even if it happens to be one we've found out about from a cable travel channel, or a newspaper, magazine, or guidebook?

But because of those three signs I'm afraid that the most picturesque images of the crab traps--like the close-up one showing the small crabs packed thick as cockroaches against a cages's screen, visible in the few inches of muddy transparency just below the water's surface--exist only in my own memory, rather than on any memory card.

One crab trap submerged at left in use, the other suspended in reserve

Picturesque as the crates may be, though, harvesting crabs from them is demanding work, a native Venetian friend told me. During the two seasons--one in spring, one in autumn--a fisherman must haul up each of his traps every two hours or risk losing his saleable crabs.

For what the fisherman is looking for as he sorts through the mess of crabs in his crate are not, as I'd imagined, crabs of a certain size, but crabs which are just about to lose their shell. We eat them once they've actually shed it, of course, but if the fisherman doesn't remove the crab just immediately before they do the other crabs will cannibalize their shell-less cohort.

How does the fisherman know which crabs are on the verge of losing their shell? "Experience," my friend said, "Practice. They just know."

This was the same kind of answer I got to my question about how the specially-hired pruners working in the old cloistered vineyard on the cemetery island of San Michele knew exactly at which point of the vine to make their cut (http://veneziablog.blogspot.it/2014/03/a-vinicultural-rite-of-spring-on-isola.html).

Is it something the fisherman feels when he touches the shells? "No," my friend said, "more to do with appearance, color, I think, not feel."

But what about the crabs I've seen them pick out of the crate and throw back into the water? Are they too small? Too large?

"No," he replied, "nothing to do with size. Those are the crabs that the fisherman knows are never going to lose their shells."

How do they know that?

My friend shrugged. "It's a very particular thing," he said. "And every two hours, no matter what, they must check the traps. In the rain, in all weather... Not an easy job. But I suppose better than being stuck inside a factory."

We talked about this as we ate some fresh moeche (mud-colored and weed-colored like the banks along which they're found) that his neighbor had left off for him and his family. They were lightly powdered, then lightly fried; each one not much more than matchbox size, to be eaten in a single bite. I'd never had them before.

I bit one cleanly in half and glanced inside. In the back half of the body was what looked like a dab of white crab meat; in the front half was a tiny mass with something like the color and consistency of a hard-boiled egg yolk. The legs were like those of a large beetle. I quickly popped it into my mouth, deciding not to get distracted by minutiae from all the history and culture and work contained in this one bite of the north lagoon.        


  1. Aha, now I understand what those crate-like structures are used for. If you wait long enough, someone gives you the answer. Thank you.

    1. Thanks for letting me know you didn't know about these crates, Yvonne, as it's not so easy to come upon something in Venice with which you're not familiar. It makes me feel like I'm "doing my job."