“Keep pulling,” shouts fisherman Sergio Carrera, to make himself heard above Patagonia’s ubiquitous wind. “There’s about 80 more metres of rope to go!”
On board a small inflatable craft in the middle of the Beagle Channel, I’m about to catch my first centolla (king crab or spider crab), an orange-hued decapod crustacean prized by chefs for its succulent and delicious white shoulder meat. This isn’t recreational fishing, however: this is the first step of a unique sea-to-table dining experience in the most southern point of Argentina. Despite the single-digit temperature and persistent wind, I’m perspiring as I do my bit, dragging up lunch from the bottom of these cold waters.
Fisherman Sergio hard at work © Sorrel Moseley-Williams
Classified as a necrophagous crustacean, king crabs are perfectly at home feasting on sea urchin remains found on the seabed of this legendary strait. These waters were navigated by the Yaghan indigenous people for ten millennia before reaching the mainstream courtesy of naturalist Charles Darwin. The usual way to devour king crab is by selecting one from a tank in a restaurant then letting a chef prepare it in the confines of their kitchen. Granted, it’s fresh, but it’s not the most romantic way of sourcing centolla. At Puerto Pirata, a tiny four-table wooden cabin of a diner nestled on the stony shores of Puerto Almanza, some 50 miles from Ushuaia, the Beagle Channel is the fish tank.
Ship’s captain Diana Méndez and husband Sergio, who is also a boat restorer, made Puerto Almanza their home a decade ago, determined to dedicate themselves to small-scale artisanal fishing. As Diana says: “At 50 miles from the city of Ushuaia, Puerto Almanza is actually a bit further than the end of the world.” And, from this peaceful and remote woodland spot – home to six hardy families used to dealing with snow, icy waters, sub-zero temperatures and anything else Mother Nature chooses to throw at them – the couple fishes and cooks at Puerto Pirata, with gulls and petrels, whales, penguins, leopard seals and wild ponies for company.
Views over the Beagle Channel © Sorrel Moseley-Williams
Besides the highly desirable centolla, they also sustainably harvest centollón (snow crab), a smaller yet equally tasty and colourful crustacean, as well as sea urchin, mussels and other bivalves. Using their stretch of water, they raise king and snow crabs in deep-water nurseries that allow them to roam the seabed. Only males of a certain size make the catch of the day, and the nurseries use a netting that allows adolescent crabs to escape, ensuring the future of this delicious resource.
As soon as my ungloved hands touch the rope, freezing wetness starts penetrating my skin. It’s cold, that’s for sure. Above, gulls circle and squabble, knowing a meal is near and, together with my friend Jorge Monopoli, chef-owner of Ushuaia’s Kalma restaurant, we haul the surprisingly heavy cage up into the boat, crabs clinging to the netting. The scarlet and orange tones of centolla match our life jackets, standing out against the patchy sky and foreboding channel that is inky right now but will become a clearer blue come late afternoon. We pick a 2.5-kilo guy to share and after popping it on the deck among ropes and other boating paraphernalia, drop the nursery back into channel, the Beagle eagerly swallowing it up.
King crabs in the boat © Sorrel Moseley-Williams
Motoring back to shore, we fill a bowl with mussels plucked from a nursery bag from the shallows then dive into the toasty embrace of Puerto Pirata, warmed by a wood-burning salamander stove. From a small kitchen, Sergio and Diana prepare our dinner, cooking the crab in sea water for four minutes. I peel off my layers of clothes and take my seat at one of four tables in this charming little cabin decorated with charts, maps and Patagonian wildlife posters. As they prep in the kitchen, I gaze out of the window, entranced by the Beagle’s waves, nearby Chile, and the ever-moving clouds.
Soon, lunch is served What makes it extra special is that we’ve all played a part. First, home-baked bread rolls with a creamy centolla pâté. Steamed mussels, some so large their shells span the length of my hands, simply dressed with a squeeze of lemon. Then, a perfect centolla, carefully put together like a jigsaw puzzle by Diana, ready to be pulled apart by me and Jorge.
I lift off the carapace to reveal its leggy riches, Sergio kitting us out with tools for pushing out sausage-shaped white meat, served chilled. It’s messy and laborious but so satisfying when the leg pops out of the shell. I suck the centolla meat off my fingers and out of the legs, determined not to let a speck go wasted. The firm yet silky flesh’s flavour is delicate, best savoured without any condiments. Seafood doesn’t get any fresher – assuring this sea-to-table banquet’s place as one of the most unique dining experiences in the world.
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