We had the enormous pleasure of finally meeting James Peet, our Southport potted shrimps supplier in his base at Banks Village in Southport, pictured above sitting on his old shrimping rig.
James set up his business in 1980 having been a shrimp fisherman for 25 years. His family have lived and been involved in the local shrimp industry for over four generations so it’s fair to say he knows a thing or two on the subject! James is an utterly delightful and charming man. We found ourselves mesmerised by all the tales he had to tell about the shrimping industry.
James used to get all his brown shrimps from the sandbanks along the Southport stretch of coastline from Formby to Banks but with the establishment of the nature reserve in 1979 encouraging the growth of the marshes for the birds, it has meant the gradual erosion of the available sand banks suitable for shrimp fishing. That together with the restrictive EEC regulations has seen a decline in local shrimp fishing.
So now James gets his shrimps from the few surviving local fishermen, and also from the shrimp fishermen in the Solway Firth.
In the early 19th century shrimp fishing was done using boats or by barefoot wading, pushing a net attached to a six foot long beam along the sand gathering shrimps as you went, a method known as “putting”. Each shrimper would carry a basket known as a “leap” which could hold up to 90 pounds of shrimps. This was incredibly hard work and in many cases dangerous work. In bad weather the water could be freezing and fog would roll in, disorienting the fishermen. Several fishermen perished until the Marshside Fog-Bell was erected to sound land in the event of bad weather. In more recent times shrimp fishing was done by horse-drawn carts. This was a much cheaper option than using a boat. The cart shankers as they were known went out with the ebb tide up to two and a half miles beyond the pier and then after the turn of the tide came in with it.
It was in Southport in the late 19th century that shrimps were first potted by cooking and capping with butter, as an answer to the very short shelf life of the shrimps. Each shrimp fisherman would use the services of their family and neighbours to help peel the shrimps (shilling) prior to potting. This long, laborious process is still done by hand but now James buys in his shrimps ready peeled.
In the 1960’s horse-drawn shanking carts were replaced by tractors trailing a series of nets. Nowadays the Southport shrimps are netted either from boats or from specially designed shrimp rigs with shank nets dragged behind along the sand. As soon as the shrimps are landed they are cooked on the rig or boat in salted water to preserve them, then peeled and frozen on land. The main shrimping season runs from September to November.
According to James shrimps vary in their saltiness and texture depending on where they are sourced. As a consequence it isn’t just a simple case of adding the same amount of spices to each batch. So James works his magic, tasting each batch of shrimps whilst cooking them in his unique blend of spices and butter, tweaking each batch for seasoning to get the level of salt just right. This level of care and attention is rare these days and is one of the reasons why he has recently won the coveted three star Gold at the Great Taste Awards and the ultimate food producers award, the Golden Fork award.
Jame’s tip for serving his potted shrimps at their very best is to heat them up to 50’C before turning out – never serve straight from the fridge.
Entertaining, hugely knowledgable yet humble he is a genuine food hero and a particular favourite of us here at Dukeshill!
Thank you James for a wonderful day.