MENDOCINO COAST, Calif. -- Crab is both indulgence and staple in many ports of the world, with each region declaring its variety the best.
Marylanders have their blue crabs. On the West Coast, the large Dungeness crab caught in cold ocean waters rewards Pacific Ocean chauvinists with sweet, briny flesh.
"Men are risking their lives to produce this incredible delicacy that is only available a few months of the year," says Mel McKinney, innkeeper at the Little River Inn on the Mendocino coast.
The locals call it cracked crab, the sweet Dungeness that looks like a man's large, outstretched hand. Cracking is what you do, quite easily, when the crab is freshly caught and cooked live, its hard shell morphing from a pale brownish mustard and ivory color to a more familiar red.
Purists insist on eating their crab mostly unadorned, a little melted butter, perhaps, or some freshly squeezed lemon. But Dungeness crab also settles comfortably in crab cakes, with risotto, in a sandwich, a salad or a stew. It is roasted, marinated and put in crepes, quiches, soups and omelets.
Natives and newcomers alike delight in the Dungeness, ubiquitous at tourist haunts like San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf.
"As a very young person, I was introduced to it on Fisherman's Wharf," says John Ash, culinary director for Fetzer Vineyards in Mendocino County. "It was a completely exotic food for someone from Colorado. They had those big old pots out there, with steaming crab, and they were pulling them out."
Ash says he has tried other kinds of crab, but "Dungeness crab has a kind of meatiness and sweetness that I have just not encountered in other crabs."
The Dungeness crab is larger than the blue crab, and is eaten from the more mature crab, succulent meat in a hard shell. Those Californians who have tried both say the blue crab has its own, special, brinier kind of flavor, while the Dungeness is sweeter. Dungeness is also meatier.
"The blue crab tastes more like the sea to me," said Ash, who has frequently cooked with the blue crab on cooking shows and on East Coast culinary tours with his winery.
Displaying his West Coast chauvinism, Stephen Smith, chef at the Albion Inn, said there is no comparison between the two.
"The blue-crab meat is not even close to being subtle," said Smith, who had blue crab while doing a cooking demonstration in New York.
"It was good, but the difference is between the Atlantic and the Pacific," he said.
The Dungeness crab is found from Alaska to Baja, Calif., though more abundantly north of the Monterey Bay. It gets its name from the town of Dungeness in Washington's Olympic Peninsula, where the first commercial harvesting of crab was done. Its season begins in December and can run through July, though most of the prized catch is caught in the first few weeks.
In the small Mendocino County coastal town of Fort Bragg, about four hours north of San Francisco, crabbing is still done mostly by independent watermen, often in a small boat with a crew of two or three.
Typically crabbers work 24-hour shifts, setting out their steel crab pots in a line, identifying them by buoy color. They leave that area to set out more pots and return to check and see if they are successful.
Then speed and strength come into play as the fishermen loosen their pots from the sandy floor, hauling their heavy load on board with the help of hydraulic lifts. By law, only male crabs measuring at least 6 1/4 inches across the shell can be harvested. The rest, including females, must be thrown back in the sea.
The Dungeness crabs that are kept are held in sea-water holds on board. With full pots and holds, the boats can be top- heavy, and one false turn leaning into the waves can spell peril.
"You always need to be sharp. It makes you very aware of how small you are in the scheme of things, and yet, when you are back on shore, safe and sound, you have managed to work in cooperation with the elements," said Printha Platt, a member of the Noyo Women for Fisheries, who fished with her late husband on the northern coast of California.
Platt's two sons followed their parents into the business. And the elder, Dan, now 42, takes his 11- and 14-year-old daughters on his small boat, hoping that they, too, may carry on the family tradition.
"I like being on the ocean. I like being by myself," says Dan Platt. "I spent 12 years fishing in Alaska. I've had two boats sink under me, and I survived. I am cautious, but it doesn't prevent me from fishing."
The local chefs are as enthusiastic as the fishermen.
"If I were cooking inland, I think I'd change professions," said the Albion Inn's Smith.
Drawing inspiration from the tall ocean cliffs and glistening dark water just outside his restaurant windows, Smith serves house favorites like the crab-stuffed, grilled portobello mushrooms in a pesto cream sauce, or a veal osso buco variation with crab and sauteed asparagus.