Catch of the bay

From the shores of Cumbria to the restaurants of Knightsbridge, potted shrimps have come a long way. Hester Lacey reveals how little brown critters preserved in butter became Morecambe Bay's caviar
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Indy Lifestyle Online

When Les Salisbury was a lad of no more than 10 years old, he netted shrimps in Morecambe Bay from a horse-drawn cart. "You could only go out into the sea up to the top of the horse's back," he recalls. Now Salisbury owns his own company, Furness Fish, and the shrimps are caught using a net mounted on a tractor. The horses, he says, were retired in the 1960s.

The Morecambe Bay shrimps are the little brown ones - sweeter and more flavoursome than its larger pink cousin. Fishing for it can be a dangerous business. The tides change rapidly and the soft sand can be treacherous. But if you know what you're doing, it's worth the risk as the shrimps, when potted and preserved in spiced butter, are one of Britain's most celebrated marine delicacies.

Furness Fish, which has just celebrated its 25th anniversary, produces between 200,000 and 300,000 pots of shrimps a year which sell in local markets and by mail order. "My son also makes the weekly trip to Borough Market in London," says Salisbury. "And, since last year, we've started supplying Asda which is starting to feature more food made by local producers in its stores."

Asda is not alone in showing an interest in this old-style Cumbrian delicacy. Morecambe Bay shrimps are one of the first British foods to be nominated to join the prestigious Ark of Taste of the Slow Food movement, which champions traditionally produced specialities from all over Europe.

The traditional way to eat potted shrimps, says Salisbury, is on hot toast. As they date from the days before refrigeration, sealing them with butter was the only way to keep them fresh. Salisbury's spice recipe is an old family secret. "You let the butter melt in and spread it on toast. But you can also add a pot to pasta, or to scrambled eggs instead of smoked salmon. In Belgium, where they eat lots of brown shrimp, they don't pot them, they eat them with mayonnaise."

Although Furness Fish has invested in a modern peeling machine, most of their shrimps are still prepared by hand and a good peeler can deal with as much as 1lb or 2lb an hour, "I used to have to do it myself when I got home from school, before I could go out to play," says Salisbury. Cooking methods have stood the test of time too. "The shrimps must be cooked while they're still alive. If they die, they go soft and you can't peel them. So they go straight into the boiling water live and kicking for just over a minute. Boil them too long and they go brittle."

Dorothy Hartley, in her paean to the best traditional English cooking, Food in England, recommends shrimps as a teatime treat, and gives an old Yorkshire recipe involving mace, cayenne pepper and a little anchovy sauce. "The effect was a solid potful of shrimps, cemented together with a soft, delicately seasoned pink butter. It was a great delicacy and always served in fine, white china," she notes.

Hartley's shrimps were served with copious amounts of bread and butter and a large pot of strong tea; but today Morecambe Bay shrimps are to be found on the most refined of menus. Hugh O'Neill founded Brasserie St Quentin on London's Old Brompton Road in 1980. In the restaurant's early days it served potted shrimps, and when O'Neill, now Lord Rathcavan, reacquired the restaurant in 2002, one of the first things he did was to reinstate brown shrimp to the menu. "They are the caviar of the shrimp world," he states.

Brasserie St Quentin is supplied by a family firm called Baxter's, which has been potting shrimps in Morecambe Bay for more than 200 years. "It's a family business that has been going on for generations," says O'Neill. "What makes them so good is that when the boats go out and they net the shrimps, they get cooked on the boat there and then."

Nana Yaw Nitri Akuffo (whose recipes appear here), the chef patron at Brasserie St Quentin, is equally enthusiastic about Morecambe Bay shrimps and uses them both potted and au naturel. The potted variety he serves simply with lobster oil, but he also uses the shrimps to garnish more sophisticated dishes. Akuffo hopes to run a shrimp week this summer, with a variety of new seasonal dishes.

Although Brasserie St Quentin sounds more French than English, the restaurant is a staunch supporter of its heritage products. "Shrimps will always be on our menu," says Akuffo. "It means a lot to me that I can buy English produce from producers that care." *

Furness Fish, tel: 01229 585 037,; Brasserie St Quentin, tel: 020 7589 8005,

Akuffo's Cornish red mullet with shrimps

Serves 4

8 fillets of red mullet weighing 150g/5oz per portion
2 butternut squash, diced
3 sprigs thyme
75g/3oz shrimps (peeled but heads left on)

For the farce

3 shallots, finely diced
2 cloves garlic, crushed
20g/3/4oz chervil
20g/3/4oz dill
50g/2oz flat-leaf parsley

For the salad

100g/31/2oz curly endive
100g/31/2 oz rocket salad
30g/1oz chopped chives

For the dressing

100ml/31/2fl oz oil (half olive and half vegetable)
30ml/1fl oz freshly squeezed lemon juice
30ml/1fl oz balsamic vinegar

Place the squash on a baking tray, season, add the thyme and coat with oil. Heat oven to 180C/350F/ Gas 4 and roast until soft.

Sweat the shallots and garlic. When cooked, allow to cool and mix with the finely chopped herbs.

Lay out the fillets of mullet skin-side down. Season and spread the herb mixture generously over half of the fillets. Place the other half of the fillet on top, making sure both skin sides are facing outwards.

To make the dressing, mix the lemon juice and oil together. Season with salt and pepper, mix 90 per cent of the liquid with the vinegar and add the chives.

Place the red mullet in the oven, at 180C/350F/Gas 4 for six minutes. Fry the shrimps in oil and season.

Place the hot squash in the middle of a plate. Sit the fish on top and place a few shrimps around. Mix the salad and dress with the remaining lemon oil. To finish, place the salad on top of the mullet and spoon the dressing all around.

Jerusalem artichoke soup with shrimps

Serves 4

400g/13 oz Jerusalem artichokes, peeled and diced
1 onion, diced
1 leek, diced
100ml/31/2fl oz dry white wine
500ml/17fl oz chicken or vegetable stock
100g/31/2oz shrimps, peeled
20ml/7fl oz olive oil
25g/1oz crème fraîche
Black pepper

Heat half the oil in a pan and sweat the onions and leeks until soft. Add the artichokes and sweat for a further two minutes.

Add the wine and reduce by half. Add the stock and simmer for 15 minutes, or until the artichokes are soft. Season, liquidise and pass through a fine strainer. Set aside and keep warm.

Heat the rest of the oil in a non-stick pan and sauté the shrimps. Season, drain off any fat and arrange them in soup bowls.

Bring the soup back to the boil, add the crème fraîche and liquidise again. Serve immediately.

Shrimps with sourdough toast

Serves 4

4 pots of potted shrimps
100g/31/2oz frisée salad, yellow leaves only
4 slices of sourdough bread
Chervil to taste

For the lemon dressing

Juice of half a lemon
Sugar to taste
25ml/1fl oz oil (half olive oil
and half vegetable oil)

For the lobster oil

1 carrot, chopped
1 onion, chopped
1/4 leek chopped
6 garlic cloves
250ml/8fl oz olive or vegetable oil
Langoustine heads or prawn shells

For the lemon dressing, place the lemon juice in a mixing bowl. Add a small amount of sugar to reduce the bitterness. Whisk to a froth and slowly add oil until it forms an emulsion. Season.

Place the shrimps in a warm place, so the butter slightly softens. Toast the sourdough and dress the frisée with the lemon oil.

Turn out the shrimps on to the centre of a plate, arrange the frisée around to form a ring.

For the lobster oil, roast the shells in a heavy-based pan, add the chopped vegetables and cook for about eight minutes. Cover with the oil and leave on a low heat for two hours to infuse. Blend and pass through some muslin.

Place a piece of sourdough on each plate. Drizzle the lobster oil over the frisée. Place the chervil on the shrimps and serve.