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
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.