Blimey, shrimping is hard work.
Sitting in the sweltering sun on a boat in the middle of Morecambe Bay, Lancashire, I'm witnessing first hand the intense labour that goes into making the famed local delicacy of potted shrimp.
Sixty-seven-year-old Ray Edmondson—shirt off, bright purple baseball cap protecting his scalp—is working fast: "riddling" his catch through a metal sieve before throwing the shrimp into a barrel of boiling seawater, and starting over. All the while his boat, christened "Bernadette," bolts through the dusty green bay on autopilot, back towards land.
Over the deafening engines, Edmondson shouts what he's doing like a chant: "Bring 'em in. Boil 'em. Peel 'em."
Traditionally, the brown shrimps of Morecambe Bay are cooked alive in seawater as this makes them easier to peel—yet another task Edmondson must complete when he is back on solid ground in his high street shop Edmondson's Fresh Fish.
"If you waited, they'd already be dead," he says, as he scoops out another crowd of orangey shrimp from the barrel and sets them aside. "Riddle 'em fast, still alive in the boiler, then riddle again once cooked."
This is just a snippet of Edmondson's workload. Before he can catch the shrimp, he has to work out where they are, effectively beating the tide in a game of cat and mouse as he uses his 35 years of knowledge, watery wiles, and a reliable depth sounder to dodge sandbanks and hunt his catch. At sea, Edmondson explains, the seabed never changes, so fishermen can plot things out. But out of Morecambe, the channels change from one day to the next. It's an estuary—it has a life of its own.
Once settled on a course, Edmondson lays out his net—a heavy, menacing lattice of floats and ropes—and trawls the seabed for an hour or so, "every day if the weathers nice, for as long as I feel like."
It's a lonely trade. Over the din of the engine, Edmondson can't even hear the wireless. It's just the bay, one man, and his thoughts. And then he's up and excited by the catch, heaving it in as he tightropes the boat's edge.
Edmondson sets the winch to work and moments later, the net spews out a sparse catch: alabaster plaice jumping like jackrabbits as their gills drown in oxygen, a polystyrene cup, and the shrimp flipping in futility against their fate.
He hops down onto the deck. Now the riddling begins …
Morecambe Bay potted shrimps are the dons of all shrimp. Found in the sandy and muddy waters on the Lancashire coast, they've been snaffled up since Tudor times. Back then, it wasn't a rare sight to see a horse and cart with long buoyed nets dragging the murky shallows. Then came the tractors and finally, in the early 20th century, the introduction of purpose built boats called "nobbies."
Bolstered by the Morecambe Trawlers' Co-operative Society founded in the 1920s, the Lancashire shrimp industry soon boomed and by the 1930s, Morecambe Bay shrimp—delivered in neat little china pots—were a mainstay on the fashionable and fancy tea tables of the London elite. The trade lasted for the best part of 60 years until the late 90s when stocks dropped, profits struggled, and the famous shrimpers of Morecambe were forced to find work elsewhere.
"The core fisherman, when there were no shrimps in winter, they'd go and get a job at the local chemical factory," Edmondson says, telling me that he did a stint there too when times were tough. "And then when it came to the spring, they'd say they were better off where they were, making money."
The co-op eventually disbanded and some 20 years on, it's only Edmondson and one other shrimper that survive—and it remains hard graft for little pay.
On our outing, Edmondson catches £270 worth of shrimp—an amount that has to cover staff costs for the peeling and potting still to be done back in the family shop, the gasoline for the boat, and any other overheads. It's scant reward for hardcore labour.
And yet from a food point of view, Morecambe Bay shrimp are worth it. They may be cooked in the middle of the bay, in a barrel no less, but they're the most tender shellfish I've ever eaten. Out of the water, they're grey and insipid-looking but once cooked, they're flushed orange and enticing.
Salty and fresh, the taste swims around the mouth, little moreish morsels of the bay.
They're even better simmered, in melted butter with white and cayenne pepper, ground nutmeg, and mace, and served cold on toast or potted in little plastic cartons, "chilled down" and preserved with clarified butter.
It's certainly no surprise that Morecambe Bay potted shrimps are one of Britain's forgotten foods recognised by The Ark of Taste, part of the global Slow Food movement and an online catalogue of over 1,000 endangered products from more than 60 countries.
They're also backed by northern supermarket chain Booths, included as part of its "Forgotten Foods" project which helped bolster sales of the seafood by as much as 45 percent.
It's never been a case of people not eating the Morecambe Bay shrimp, the matter at hand is all about who's going to catch them.
Was it easier 30 years ago? Were there more shrimp?
"There seemed to be more," Edmondson says. "A good boat, 12 months of the year, a catch every day. It would be good enough but it's not like that. It's usually about four months over winter without any shrimp. And more money on gasoline. Years ago, if you weren't catching shrimp, you'd switch the net and go fish trawling, but they've taken my license off me now."
It does seem as if the tide is turning against Edmondson. He's not allowed to keep his by-catch anymore, something he'd make a small profit off a few years back. The access to his shop has also been disrupted since the regeneration of Morecambe town centre, which he says has cut footfall in half ("the street was busy, the shop was busy"), and in what sounds like the plot of a 1950s crime paperback, he also says that the local power station is sucking up and killing fish.
Edmondson doesn't have to shrimp. He's not financially dependent on it. He wants to do it. He wants to keep the craft alive.
As a child, he remembers buying shrimp for his mum from a little shrimping shop, watching her shell them by the sink, then simmer them "without seasoning" and wrap them in newspaper so—with no fridge—they'd keep for the following day for his dad's sandwiches to take to work.
"You could say it was past down from my mum, my potting," he says.
Shrimp are knitted into the community here, too. In many ways, Morecambe is shrimp. But at 67-years-old, Edmondson can't go on forever.
Sure, there are people shrimping recreationally on a Saturday and a Sunday but they can't sell them commercially because they're not registered and licensed. Post co-op, the shared profits of yesteryear are long gone. What Edmondson makes, he pockets. His son, he says, knows there are better ways to make money. And unable to pay someone he can teach to shrimp, the line, it seems, will end with him.
"We've had some good times and some bad times," he says, as we clamber into the rowing boat to take us back to shore. "There's no one coming after me."
This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in August 2016.