Shrimp in the offing
In search of the elusive but tasty brown shrimp
One of the nicest things I’ve eaten recently was a cucumber. It was an English cucumber and it came from a farm shop. The flower was still attached at the end. It was not cold, not rigid, not plastic-wrapped — in fact a little bit soft, and warm from sitting on a sunny kitchen table. I cut it very thinly, threw salt and pepper on the slices, tossed them, spread nice thin brown bread with a local fresh soft cheese, and piled the cucumber high. Just in time for summer I have finally understood the appeal of the cucumber sandwich.
It is also the season for the brown shrimp, traditionally fished in Norfolk and Lancashire, as well as France and Belgium — in French, confusingly, they are called “crevette grise”, the grey shrimp. (For the avoidance of doubt the species name is crangon crangon.) They are comically tiny once cooked, but are densely savoury, rich and sweet, totally unlike the pink Atlantic shrimp. You can’t buy them raw, always and only cooked, as they spoil so fast, and it seems difficult to find them in the shell (selfishly, I love to eat the shells). Gently bathing them in butter, as for potted shrimp, lets their deliciousness bloom, but eating them morsel by morsel, straight from the plastic pot they come in, savouring every one, is just as good. In Norfolk, seaside fishmongers and stalls sell them. I’ve seen small packs of pre-peeled ones in the fancier supermarkets, and at markets in London. Americans can’t get them at all. I don’t think they live there: the New York Times’s recipe for potted shrimp was forced to specify that the shrimp be “cut into 1/4-inch dice”. The traditional spices are mace, nutmeg and pepper, but paprika and curry powder make for a spicier version. I’m also not massively keen on butter, so tend just to coat the shrimps rather than bury them. “Potting” them, originally a method of preservation, means putting them in clarified butter: to do this, melt your butter, simmer it, and scoop away any white froth. The clear yellow part is the clarified butter: pour it off, leaving the white milk solids behind. You then cook your spices a little in it before pouring it over your cooked, peeled brown shrimps. A second layer of butter goes over the top to make a complete seal. That’s really it.
If you want to fish for them, you need a push net (not a dip net) — proper ones are four feet wide, as tall as you are, with a flat bar at the bottom and a long handle like a broom. Smaller, more manageable ones cost about £15. A guide to making one can be found in John Wright’s Edible Seashore (Bloomsbury, £14.99). The shrimp is a forager, in some ways the ant of the sea, and spends the day hiding, submerged in sand with only the antennae peeping out. You push the net at low tide scraping along the bottom, attempting to disturb the shrimp’s sleeping place and startle him into trying to flee — directly into your net.
Patience is needed for the shrimp hunt. If you need a shrimping role model, P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves In The Offing reveals that Jeeves was a keen shrimper who, for his annual holiday, abandoned Bertie Wooster for the shrimping in Bognor Regis. And an exhibition, at the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham until June 5, showcases the work of Jean Painlevé, a French photographer and filmmaker whose playful, eccentric work, often focusing on the sea floor, from the 1920s onwards, makes the natural world look completely alien. His photographs (some of which appeared in George Bataille’s surrealist art magazine Documents) include abstracted “portraits” in close-up of crab claws and shrimp tails. In Histoires de Crevettes (Shrimp Stories), from 1964, a clip of which has been posted online by the Archives Jean Painlevé, he describes “la pêche à crevette” as “the most beautiful, the most enviable of sports”, over shots of determined shrimpers falling over. His crevettes are ludicrous and doomed: the shrimp’s jagged rostrum (nose ridge) is “a pitiful weapon in spite of its proud curves”, and as for the creature itself: “It is desperate in its flight, in its useless leaps, a pitiful victim whose tricks lead nowhere. Its too precarious refuge of seaweed or rocks hardly protects it from the relentless net, which in a flash takes it from its family.” How much does this reveal about Jeeves, the shrimper?
My own very brief proof-of-concept shrimping outing — with, by fishermen’s standards, a child-size net — lasted 20 minutes and brought in six cockles (completely by accident: normally for cockles you have to dig), one smallish crab, and, to our great excitement, a single shrimp. We felt extremely proud of this, promptly named the cockles (Tim, Bob, Eric, Jim, Jamie Oliver, and Bill) and put them into a plastic bottle of seawater with our shrimp, who seemed nervous. (The crab was undersize so was put back into the sea.) We threw the catch into a small hot pan with a tiny bit of butter and splash of water and they were, of course, extremely good. If you’re taking it seriously you should start a couple of hours before low tide and keep going until the tide turns.
There aren’t a huge number of brown shrimp dishes — aside from potted and plain boiled, you most usually see them in the sauce for Dover sole or other flatfish. I had thought this was an extremely rude use of the brown shrimp, considering it’s so delicious on its own, until I realised that netting shrimp from the sandy sea floor might well bring along flatfish as bycatch. So it may be, at origin, a sensible, cunning way of cooking two creatures which arrived in the net together. Some French recipes use them in a more sensible way — added to omelettes, or used like tiny morsels of ham. But the best way to eat shrimp is by themselves, stealthily, savouring them one by one, and thinking perhaps about their families submerged on the sea floor.