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Shrimping at Sizewell with Suffolk seafood writer Mike Warner

PUBLISHED: 14:00 26 July 2019

Shrimp Safari with Mike Warner on sizewell Beach.

Shrimp Safari with Mike Warner on sizewell Beach.

Sarah Lucy Brown

Net at the ready, Linda Duffin joins seafood consultant Mike Warner on a foraging expedition to catch briny brown shrimp | Words: Linda Duffin - Photos: Sarah Lucy Brown

There was a time when the brown shrimp was such a popular British delicacy that it made its way into the pages of novels. Ian Fleming loved potted shrimps so much he transferred his passion to his fictional character James Bond.

Bertie Wooster's butler, Jeeves, was so dedicated to their pursuit that he left a previous employer when he wasn't allowed to go on his annual shrimping holiday to Bognor.

Yet today, the vast majority of brown shrimps fished around Britain are exported abroad. Crangon Crangon, to give them their Latin name, or crevettes grise, as they are known in France, are fished from the Thames to The Wash but of the 40,000 tonnes caught in the North Sea, only 500 or 600 tonnes are landed by British fishermen, and the bulk of those are sold to Holland, Germany and Denmark.

Shrimp Safari with Mike Warner on sizewell Beach.Shrimp Safari with Mike Warner on sizewell Beach.

According to Suffolk seafood writer and consultant Mike Warner, this is something of a national tragedy. "We just don't seem to have the appetite for them in this country any more. We've lost that seafood culture, that seaside shellfish culture of eating wild protein." He is on a mission to change that and he invited a small group to join him at Sizewell beach to demonstrate the joys of shrimping.

Gathering on the foreshore near low tide, we looked out at the grey waters of the North Sea with some trepidity. But Mike's enthusiasm is infectious and as he came armed with a wheelbarrow full of push nets, we were soon equipped for the hunt.

These nets are rectangular, with a flange at the business end to stir up the sand, a fine mesh to catch any shrimp lurking below its surface and a sturdy broom-like handle to push the thing along.

Shrimp Safari with Mike Warner on sizewell Beach.Shrimp Safari with Mike Warner on sizewell Beach.

I've seen the action described as akin to cutting the grass with an old-fashioned lawnmower and it's certainly just as good in terms of exercise. It is surprisingly good fun, though, and I speak as a plump, middle aged woman who doesn't like getting her feet wet.

The shrimps hide just below the surface of the seabed and are common on the offshore sandbars which form a nutrition-rich nursery for many species. We trawled up and down, knee-deep in the water, periodically checking our nets to see if we had caught anything.

I had a very good haul of small, clear jellyfish Mike called sea gooseberries, but only one under-sized shrimp. Others had a more fruitful expedition and one of our number had to be lured out of the water with the offer of a cook-up on the beach, otherwise he would probably be halfway to London by now.

Shrimp Safari with Mike Warner on sizewell Beach.Shrimp Safari with Mike Warner on sizewell Beach.

"It's not for everyone," Mike admits, "but if you grew up by the seaside as I did, and practised this as a child, it's quite addictive. My children are in their 20s now and still love it. It's all very well seeing children running around with a butterfly net on the beach dipping into rock pools, but actually you can do a good job with these push nets we're using, and it can be quite productive and very rewarding and great fun."

Traditionally brown shrimps were hand-picked but, commercially, most are now shucked mechanically using a compressed air and high pressure water process, with a corresponding loss of flavour. That's usually what you're buying if you purchase cooked and peeled or potted shrimps from a supermarket. They are a world away from those that are freshly caught.

Crouched over a pan of rapidly boiling water on Sizewell beach, Mike fishes out our catch and deftly shells them. He says: "The flavour's superb. If you get them out of the water in peak condition, cook them in salt water, preferably seawater, then you get a wonderful sweet and saline flavour and they're like sea sweets.

Shrimp Safari with Mike Warner on sizewell Beach.Shrimp Safari with Mike Warner on sizewell Beach.

"You can eat a whole bag full one after the other quite quickly. Or as my wife does, lean over my shoulder as I'm peeling them and yes, my pile of peeled shrimps never gets any bigger!"

And it is free food. The mechanically processed shrimps, on the other hand, come back from the factory in vacuum-sealed packs, but by then their price has doubled, tripled, even quadrupled compared to what the fishermen were originally paid.

"Fishermen will get between £5-£10 a kilo," says Mike. "By the time that's gone through a merchant, gone abroad, then gone into retail, I've seen shrimps for sale on shelves in supermarkets for in excess of £60 a kilo, once you break it down. That's prohibitive, really, for UK restaurants to use as an ingredient. And it's a shame because they're ubiquitous in this country and we should be using them."

Shrimp Safari with Mike Warner on sizewell Beach.Shrimp Safari with Mike Warner on sizewell Beach.

He sees opportunities here for food tourism, food foraging, or just for getting back to nature. And for anyone interested in having a go, he is planning a fringe event as part of this year's Aldeburgh food and drink festival.

"I thought it would be a good idea to offer a few like-minded people, those who want to explore the Suffolk Heritage Coast and seaside, and what it's got to offer in terms of wild foraged seafood, a chance to go and get some of these shrimps.

"So we're hopefully going to get people down to here at Sizewell, or maybe Walberswick, where we can appreciate the coastline and also get in the water and get wet with some shrimping gear."

Shrimp Safari with Mike Warner on sizewell Beach.Shrimp Safari with Mike Warner on sizewell Beach.

And let's not forget the cook-up on the beach and the chance to eat some sea sweets.

Go on, have a go. If I can do it, anyone can.



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