One of The Midland Hotels most popular dishes, we have the great privilege of living just a stone’s throw from where Morecambe Bay Shrimps arrive on shore. From net to Chef in a matter of hours - there’s nothing that beats the freshness of that daily catch.
Ahead of The Midland Seafood Festival on Saturday 2nd and Sunday 3rd July 2016, The Midland Manager, Mark Needham, and Head Chef, Michael Wilson, spent a day with Frank Benson, traditional shrimp fisherman, tracing the route of this delicacy from the sea water of the Britain’s second largest bay to the elegance of fine dining in The Midland’s Sun Terrace Restaurant.
Shrimping in Morecambe Bay has been an important part of the area’s culture and economy since the 18th Century. Railway transport enabled a wider distribution of the catch and in the 1930s brought potted shrimps by carriage-full to meet the demands of the fashionable tea tables of London society. Ian Fleming was a fan of the dish and it was a natural progression that James Bond himself would also have a predilection for this juicy little crustacean.
Frank Benson remembers shrimping with his Dad when he was as young as 7 years old. Indeed, the Benson tradition goes back three generations and Frank has taught his own son the craft. Back then, the shrimp nets were pulled by horse and cart which have long since been replaced by tractors. What remains is an essential and in-depth knowledge of the shifting quick sands and tidal patterns of Morecambe Bay. Anyone without this expertise would be taking on a foolhardy venture. There are now only a handful of fishermen shrimping in this traditional manner, giving rise to concerns about its future.
This is a far cry from any commercial shrimp farming operation. Frank has two 15’ iron bars or ‘beams’ to which specialist shrimping nets are connected. His tractor then hauls the nets across the channels at low tide.
Immediately after the catch, back at headquarters – a production and potting facility behind his family home – the shrimps are riddled to get rid of any unwanted intruders like crab or weever fish. Then they go straight into the pot to boil before cooling and refrigeration. A successful hour’s catch would yield about 2lb of shrimps.
Frank laughs at the notion that the shrimp population is declining due to the efficiency of tractor fishing. The main restriction on his production at the moment is the difficulty of finding ‘pickers’. This is the process of detaching the head from the body of the shrimp by hand. Again, Frank remembers this as an essential family pastime when he was a young lad; an experience picker can happily watch the TV without it detracting from the process! Frank’s youngest picker is around sixty-five years old and there doesn’t seem to be a generation on the side-lines eager to get involved. Of course, there is the option of mechanising the process, but beware, mechanical pickers involve streams of water which seriously affects the all-important taste.
The Midland Hotel has been enjoying Frank Benson’s shrimps since the hotel re-opened in 2008. Indeed, we commission about 85% of Frank’s catch. There is something about these tiny pink/brown sweet and succulent fruits of the sea that our guest’s just love.
Frank will be bringing along some shrimps to The Midland Seafood Festival on 2nd & 3rd July 2016. Come along and find out more about this traditional craft and have a go at ‘picking’ yourself. You never know, we might find a new generation of willing helpers to keep this industry flourishing.