Big is not necessarily best when it comes to seafood. The shrimp is a byword for the tiny. Yet, these morsels of rich flesh have an intense flavour that is vastly superior to large, warm-water tiger prawns.
All around the British coast, little brown shrimp lurk in the sand, their eyes poking up on stalks. Fishermen and seasiders disturb their hiding place with nets. They leap for safety and end up on our plates. Lucky us, for there are many ways to eat shrimp.
The French include whole shrimp in fruits de mer. Valentine Warner’s The Good Table has an excellent Spanish recipe for shrimp and chick-pea flour fritters. In his new exploration of seafood, In At the Deep End, Jake Tilson cooks them like the Italians, with garlic, olive oil and parsley. His paper bag from Rialto Market in Venice hopped with the live creatures, and his recipe begins with an instruction to beware they don’t jump behind the cooker.
In Britain, our classic dish is potted shrimps. Potting is a traditional way of preserving food. It was common in 18th-century households – be it for gamebirds or seafood. The cooked flesh was taken off the bones or out of the shell and pounded to make a paste, and then sealed with melted butter.
Industrialisation dragged this fine craft downhill. Remember those pungent, cheap, fish-paste sandwiches? But potted shrimps are still classy. The shellfish, blanketed with butter, are flavoured with savoury Old English spicing, such as mace, cayenne pepper, bay and even a spot of anchovy essence.
Shrimp can be caught all around the coast. The River Cottage Handbook No 5: The Edible Seashore recommends, in general, an hour either side of the spring low tides as the best time to venture forth with your net. April to the end of June is ideal, with a second season in the autumn.
Commercially, shrimp are most famously fished in Morecambe Bay. Cedric Robinson, now in his 49th year as The Queen’s Guide to the Sands, has been shrimping all his life and knows his way around the notoriously treacherous bay, where the tides can sweep in from nowhere.
Robinson started out selling shrimp on the train to Carnforth by the gill, pint or quart, and fishing them by horse and cart. “You needed a good horse because your life depended on it,” he says. “There’d be 15 horses side by side dragging nets through the water. Many times, the horse would fall into a hole and lose its footing. You’d have to release it quickly so it could swim away and get up.”
Shrimp are still caught by fishermen around the bay, now using tractors or improvised machines,
or by boat. The shellfish are briefly boiled, then shelled, some by machine and others still laboriously by hand.
Andrew Lanigan is a third-generation fishmonger in Lytham, Lancashire. He sells four types of potted shrimp, all slightly different and each with its own fan base. “I couldn’t imagine the job without shrimps,” he says simply.
One of the best-known brands is Baxters of Morecambe, which has used the same method for potting since it started in 1799. The company sells by mail order around the country, and at farmers’ markets and food events in the north-west.
Children as well as adults love the flavour, according to Baxters manager Mark Smith. “Perhaps its because their mothers say, ‘You won’t like them’,” he speculates. “They’re a lot more meaty than people expect and our pots are 85% shrimp.”
You can, of course, make your own. Cedric Robinson does 1lb at a time in a pudding basin but most people use ramekins and serve one per person. Another version of this traditional recipe starts with whole shrimps. You make a quick, tasty stock with the shells and cook a soft fish, such as whiting in it. This is made into a paste flavoured with spices. The shrimp are folded through, then the mixture is potted and sealed with melted butter.
Chef Rowley Leigh gives a recipe for this method in his outstanding cookbook No Place Like Home. Leigh was inspired by Dorothy Hartley’s book on English food, in which she beautifully describes her source, a lady called Betsy Tatterstall, who served the dish at a northern Shrimp Tea.
For most recipes, however, you can simply buy ready-peeled shrimp at the seaside (they may well have come from Holland) and pot them in butter that has been melted and seasoned with your chosen spices.
It is best to take potted shrimp out of the fridge a little ahead of eating them in order to make them spread more easily on toast. They are also delicious mixed with hot pasta and
a squeeze of lemon.
The northern supermarket chain Booths has recently promoted potted shrimps as part of a “Forgotten Foods” promotion alongside Slow Food UK. Sales have doubled. Once prompted, people clearly remember their fondness for this British delicacy.