Why we're potty for shrimps

The smaller cousins of the prawn were once a working-class staple. Now modern diners are rediscovering this sweet and succulent seafood, reports Anthea Gerrie.

They are fiddly, hard to come by and not exactly cheap, but nothing sums up a summer treat quite as successfully as a heap of tiny, salty-sweet and utterly succulent brown shrimp, piled into a pint cone or potted with spiced butter to serve warm on toast. "My kids have grown up with these tiny shrimp; my wife is French and we're always in Brittany, where everyone is out with their nets along the south coast when the tides are right," says Tim Hughes, chef director of Caprice Holdings. "We just pull off the heads and pop them into our mouths," he adds.

But the urbane clients of J Sheekey and Scott's in Mayfair, over whose kitchen Hughes presides, get a far more sophisticated product. The shrimps are perfectly peeled and then enrobed in soft butter sumptuously spiced with lemon juice, cayenne, mace and the splash of anchovy essence that lifts them into the sublime. Ian Fleming was so taken with this dish, which he ate as often as he could afford it at Scott's, he endowed James Bond with his own penchant for potted shrimp.

It's ironic to see affluent sophisticates tucking into a dish once associated with the working classes. As long ago as Tudor times fishermen families were tucking into the tiny flotsam which came up in the nets with bigger fry, and posher folk took to them in the days before prawns became readily available.

The idea of potting the tiny brown taste explosions dates back to the 16th century, according to food historian Alan Davidson. They would be boiled at sea and brought home for the fishermen's wives to cover in carefully clarified butter to give them some shelf life in the days before refrigeration.

Now the sweetest, from Morecambe Bay, have to be dredged for with trailers pulled seven miles over the sands by tractors, which have replaced the horses and carts used until the middle of the 20th century. Until the 1980s, the shrimp had to be peeled by hand: "We were the first on the bay to get in a special machine to do this," says Clare Worrall of Furness Fish & Game in Flookburgh, at the southern tip of Cumbria.

She leads the way into a small room where the shrimp are boiled for 10 minutes in spiced butter – "it's the minimum by law to remove any bacteria, but it doesn't toughen them, because the shrimp just absorb the butter". Then they go into pots to be topped with more butter, clarified to the point that it looks like golden lemon curd.

The potted product, which needs to be warmed through to melt the butter for the most succulent eating, goes out to delis, farm shops and Booths, the northern chain of gourmet supermarkets that has almost single-handedly saved Morecambe Bay shrimp from culinary extinction. "We've stocked them for 15 years, but since we embarked on the Slow Food campaign to increase sales last September, we've seen them jump by 166 per cent," says fish buyer Matthew Bruno. The stores exhibit lifesize cardboard cutouts of Les Salisbury, who has fished the bay since he was a boy, and hold in-store tastings to encourage customers who have never tried shrimp to experience these tiny crustaceans that punch so much above their weight in taste.

Potted under a different label, Morecambe Bay shrimps have also shown an increase at Waitrose, which also sells North Sea "fisherman's" shrimp as they come, for those who prefer them au naturel. They are great piled up in a dish with crusty bread and butter, sitting in the midst of a salad with good mayo on the side, or tossed with olive oil, a touch of chilli, crushed garlic and tagliarini.

Morecambe Bay shrimp is now an official "forgotten food", only saved from extinction by the efforts of the remaining three producers and their "Slow Food" champions. But sweet little shrimps are also to be found in other parts of coastal Britain, notably Norfolk, Falmouth and the Isle of Wight, as well as across the Channel, where the French call them petits gris and tuck into them whole as a preprandial snack, or as part of a plateau de fruits de mer.

Recipes for potting the shrimp are as old as the hills – Florence White gives one dating back to the 18th century in her 1932 cookbook Good Things In England. It recommends melting shrimp and butter together in a low oven, while in the 19th-century Mrs Beeton advocated simmering the seafood for 15 minutes. Mark Hix keeps his off the heat altogether, simply adding the tiny crustaceans to warm butter infused with spices.

The spicing has been toned down since the older recipes, which included cloves and nutmeg. Mace, subtler than its nutmeg relative, adds an intriguing nuance, but the jury is out over cayenne; Mark Hix and Marco Pierre White prefer white pepper.

As an alumnus of Caprice Holdings, Hix retains the lemon juice and anchovy essence that made the dish such a favourite of Fleming at Scott's, but Richard Kirkwood, who has left J Sheekey to make The Bell at Ticehurst a Sussex dining destination, has rejected it: "The best results come from a simple mix of shrimps with butter, sweated shallots, lemon juice and just a touch of mace," he insists. Modern chefs in general use whole butter rather than the traditional clarified, now preservation is no longer the prime aim.

Out of their shells: How chefs are serving brown shrimp

Theo Randall mixes brown shrimp with sautéed young artichokes, garlic, chili and lemon juice as a sauce for tagliarini.

Mark Jarvis of the Blueprint Cafe dries shrimp out in the oven, tosses them with salt and sprinkles them over popcorn for an inspired snack.

Tom Cook sprinkles tiny shrimp mixed with shallots and beurre noisette over whole grilled plaice at Pont de la Tour.

Yvonnick Lalle, executive head chef at Morton's club, combines tiny brown shrimp with confit lemon, diced nicoise olives and the Sardinian toasted semolina balls known as fregola.

Brian Turner mixes brown shrimp with double cream, mustard and beer before adding egg yolks and mature cheddar to make an unusual Welsh rarebit.

Potted shrimp and crab with pickled cucumber and sourdough toast

By Mark Block at the Bluebird, Chelsea

Serves 4

180g unsalted butter
Juice of half a lemon
1 blade of mace, crushed
Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
Small bay leaf
Pinch of cayenne pepper
200g peeled brown shrimps
100g white crabmeat
Maldon salt and freshly ground white pepper
1 cucumber, peeled, de-seeded, sliced finely
200ml white wine vinegar
100g caster sugar
4 slices sourdough bread

Melt the butter in a pan and add the lemon juice, mace, cayenne, bay leaf, nutmeg salt and pepper.

Then remove from the heat and infuse for 15 minutes. Pass through a sieve into a bowl and then add the shrimps and crab to the buttery mix. Taste and season. Place in 4 ramekins and set in the fridge.

For the cucumber pickle, boil the vinegar and sugar until the sugar has dissolved and then place in the fridge until cold. Salt the cucumber slices very slightly and leave for 10 minutes, then add the vinegar in the fridge. Leave for a couple of hours to pickle.

Serve the potted shrimps and crab at room temperature and enjoy spread on the toast.

Arts and Entertainment
TV Review: Sabotage, a meltdown and, of course, plenty of sauce
News
newsVideo for No campaign was meant to get women voting
News
A photo of Charles Belk being detained by police on Friday 22 August
news
News
i100'Geography can be tough'
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Sport
Louis van Gaal looks dejected after Manchester United's 4-0 defeat by MK Dons on Tuesday night
sport
News
Actor, model and now record breaker: Jiff the Pomeranian
Video
News
REX/Eye Candy
science
News
i100
News
Down time: an employee of Google uses the slide to get to the canteen
scienceBosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder
Sport
Alexis Sanchez celebrates after scoring his first goal for Arsenal in the Champions League qualifier against Besiktas
sportChilean's first goal for the club secures place in draw for Champions League group stages
Arts and Entertainment
Amis: 'The racial situation in the US is as bad as it’s been since the Civil War'
booksAuthor says he might come back across Atlantic after all
Extras
indybest
Life and Style
Google Doodle celebrates the 200th birthday of Irish writer Sheridan Le Fanu
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
News
i100
News
In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind Jim Carrey and Kate Winslett medically erase each other from their memories
scienceTechnique successfully used to ‘reverse’ bad memories in rodents could be used on trauma victims
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Pixie Lott will take part in Strictly Come Dancing 2014, the BBC has confirmed
tv
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Business Development Manager / Sales Pro

    £30 - 35k + Uncapped Comission (£70k Y1 OTE): Guru Careers: A Business Develop...

    Graduate Sales Executive / Junior Sales Exec

    £18k + Uncapped Commission (£60k Y1 OTE): Guru Careers: A Graduate Sales Exe...

    Web Developer / Software Developer

    £25 - 60k (DOE): Guru Careers: A Web Developer / Software Developer is needed ...

    Oracle 11g SQL 2008 DBA (Unix, Oracle RAC, Mirroring, Replicati

    £6000 - £50000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: Oracle 11...

    Day In a Page

    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone
    Amazon is buying Twitch for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?

    What is the appeal of Twitch?

    Amazon is buying the video-game-themed online streaming site for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?
    Tip-tapping typewriters, ripe pongs and slides in the office: Bosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder

    How bosses are making us work harder

    As it is revealed that one newspaper office pumps out the sound of typewriters to increase productivity, Gillian Orr explores the other devices designed to motivate staff
    Manufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl records

    Hard pressed: Resurgence in vinyl records

    As the resurgence in vinyl records continues, manufacturers and their outdated machinery are struggling to keep up with the demand
    Tony Jordan: 'I turned down the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series nine times ... then I found a kindred spirit'

    A tale of two writers

    Offered the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series, Tony Jordan turned it down. Nine times. The man behind EastEnders and Life on Mars didn’t feel right for the job. Finally, he gave in - and found an unexpected kindred spirit
    Could a later start to the school day be the most useful educational reform of all?

    Should pupils get a lie in?

    Doctors want a later start to the school day so that pupils can sleep later. Not because teenagers are lazy, explains Simon Usborne - it's all down to their circadian rhythms
    Prepare for Jewish jokes – as Jewish comedians get their own festival

    Prepare for Jewish jokes...

    ... as Jewish comedians get their own festival
    SJ Watson: 'I still can't quite believe that Before I Go to Sleep started in my head'

    A dream come true for SJ Watson

    Watson was working part time in the NHS when his debut novel, Before I Go to Sleep, became a bestseller. Now it's a Hollywood movie, too. Here he recalls the whirlwind journey from children’s ward to A-list film set
    10 best cycling bags for commuters

    10 best cycling bags for commuters

    Gear up for next week’s National Cycle to Work day with one of these practical backpacks and messenger bags
    Paul Scholes: Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United

    Paul Scholes column

    Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United
    Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

    Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

    A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
    Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

    The science of herding is cracked

    Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
    Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

    This tyrant doesn’t rule

    It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?