Even though potted shrimps are readily available in the better sort of supermarket and from good fishmongers, they seem to belong more to past times, conjuring images of Victorian families sitting at cloth-covered tables to eat them, brought by the wonderful new railways; and of rosy-cheeked children in the hefty shorts and buttoned white shirts of the fifties tucking in to a treat by the seaside.
Perhaps the simplicity of the dish moves it spiritually into another, earlier time in our minds. Shrimps are caught in the shallow waters at various places around Britain: in East Anglia, and the Thames Estuary , but most famously in the vast expanse of Morecambe Bay, mile after mile of almost imperceptibly sloping sands. They are boiled in sea water, shelled (machinery exists to do this, but some like the traditional supplier Baxters still do it by hand), mixed in with hot spiced butter to cook for a few moments, then cooled, packed into their characteristic little tubs, topped off with a layer of butter to seal the contents from harm.
The flavours of butter, sweet brown shrimps (Crangon crangon), and gentle spices – mace and nutmeg are traditional – blend beautifully. Served with thinly sliced brown bread and a pot of tea potted shrimps are an elegant delicacy that can be enjoyed with almost no effort beyond sourcing them in the first place.
The methods of gathering the shrimps have changed over the years. Once they were hand netted, then caught from special boats and from carts pulled over the sands by horsepower. Now ‘nobbies’, the shallow drafted boats used to drag the nets, and the horses and carts have largely been displaced by tractors that may be causing a decline in the catch as they are over-efficient.
It is to be hoped that the industry survives, along with its sweet product. Baxters was founded in 1799, and the locals were enjoying home made potted shrimps long before that – potting is a very old British way of preserving the shelf-life of foods. And it is also to be hoped that their simplicity is untouched by commercial concerns – may we never hear of curried potted shrimps, or American-style barbecue-flavour versions