The Lasts Fishermen Of Moeche In The Venetian Lagoon

Celebrating a Venetian Delicacy

In spring and fall, fishermen haul in a local favorite from Venice's famous lagoon: "moleche," or soft shell crab.

For a few days every spring and summer, fishermen in Venice, Italy, wend their way across the city's famous lagoon to harvest a seasonal delicacy: small, green, soft-shell crabs known as "moleche." Today, only a relative handful of fishermen still engage in the hard work of pulling the crabs from the lagoon's shallow waters. But the tradition of making a quick, fresh meal of fried moleche continues in Venice as it always has.

FIRST LIGHT Simone Padovani/Awakening/Getty Images FIRST LIGHT A fisherman lights up a cigarette at sunrise in the Venetian lagoon while harvesting moleche. Crab fisherman, or "molecanti," have fished the lagoon in much the same way for centuries — arduous work that, they say, no longer pays as well as it once did. POLING PLACE Simone Padovani/Awakening/Getty Images POLING PLACE The window for harvesting the crabs is tight. In fact, while the moleche season lasts from April into May in the spring and October and November in the fall, the crabs are prized as a culinary treat only when they have shed one shell, and have not yet grown another — a process that, incredibly, takes only a few hours. It is only then that the soft, succulent crustaceans are sold to restaurants and to families preparing a traditional Venetian dish: fried soft-shell crabs. SORTING IT OUT Simone Padovani/Awakening/Getty Images SORTING IT OUT Fisherman Ivan Bognolo selects moleche pulled from Venice's lagoon, April 2018. The lagoon is the only place in all of Italy where moleche are fished. ANCIENT WAYS Simone Padovani/Awakening/Getty Images ANCIENT WAYS The crabs are pulled from pen-like nets, as they have been for generations. The crabs' molting process can take anywhere from four to six hours. The creatures are sometimes held in vats filled with seawater at the markets, and sold at the very moment the first shell is cast off, for optimal freshness. LIONS OF THE SEA Simone Padovani/Awakening/Getty Images LIONS OF THE SEA According to a 2016 Reuters article, the small green crab enjoys a more central place in Venetian lore than simply gracing the city's dinner tables each spring and fall: "Historians say they pervade Venice’s artistic tradition as well. In paintings and sculptures, the Venetian lion, symbol of the city, is often portrayed front facing with its wings around its head. The shape is reminiscent of a crab’s claws, and in Venice, the lion depicted in this way is often referred to as being in 'moeca.'" WAITING Simone Padovani/Awakening/Getty Images WAITING In a scene repeated every day all over the world, wherever people fish, hungry cats wait for a treat while a fisherman — in this case, a Venetian "molecanti" (crab fisherman) — sorts his catch on a dock after spending hours on the water. READY FOR THE POT Simone Padovani/Awakening/Getty Images READY FOR THE POT As an article in the Guardian once put it, describing the way moleche (or "moeca" in the Venetian dialect) have long been prepared for meals: "[T]he classic preparation method is not for the fainthearted: the crabs are soaked in seasoned beaten egg, which they absorb and eventually drown in. They are then dredged in coarse flour and deep-fried until golden brown and crisp. Served with sea salt and a squeeze of lemon, they are delicious and intense in a briny, iodine-y way." UNDER VENETIAN SKIES Simone Padovani/Awakening/Getty Images UNDER VENETIAN SKIES Tourists in Venice enjoy an al fresco meal of freshly caught and quickly fried moleche, or seasonal soft shell crabs, April 2018.