Sunday, September 11, 2011

Rockpools & Epiphany Moments In Cooking

Guest post by Dom Bailey

It's a proud moment. The biggest prawn-like creatures we've caught rockpooling, and my five year old son wants to eat them. We spent hours rockpooling. Hours. There probably isn't a wriggling, skulking, pinching piece of marine life along the north coast of Cornwall that hasn't been traumatised by the poke, net, and bucket experience that results from us visiting a beach.

But so far, we we’re only doing it for fun - for the 'look what we found' or the 'do captive crabs fight?' factor or the 'I wonder what a marine biologist would earn in 20 years time - and how long do they have to study for?' (the adult role in rockpooling is generally life guard, crab grabber and stone turner, so there is a lot of time for reflection).

But eating our catch had never been part of the equation. Even the Spanish wouldn't go for the tiddlers we scooped out.

Until the day of the prawn.

There are lots of prawny, shrimp-like things in the rockpools, but the biggest we'd seen had been not much more than two or three centimetres long - too small to bother cooking and peeling.

Prawns always seemed to be more exotic - "responsibly farmed in Thailand" or suchlike, not "caught near St Merryn with a £1 net from an RNLI charity shop".

But at the end of a long day of exploring and stone turning we sat on a rock half-heartedly dipping the net into "definitely the last pool or mummy is going to be really annoyed" as the tide started to ease its way back in.

I saw something of reasonable size, for a rockpool, dart under the overhanging seaweed. Being dad allows for commandeering of the net in the event of a potentially large catch. That's just how it is, it's the rules, ask your mother.

Anyway, a deft dip, scoop and twist motion (there is a technique...) and I see two things flapping in the net. Flapping. Not flitting or twitching as the little shrimplets had earlier in the day. Flapping. Two definitely-not-shrimp-sized prawns, a thumb in length.

I'm not sure who was more excited. "Wow let me have a go!"

‘Not likely’ thoughts give way to "of course, here you go." Grit teeth, scan seabed.

Frustration gets me the net back in no time, and I find that scooping along the gravelly bottom returns a few more finger-size prawns.

The incoming tide seems to have brought a bigger bounty. We'd found the rockpool equivalent of a kids’ playground after dark where teenagers hang out trying to look cool on roundabouts and bouncy tortoises.

Then came the "can we eat them?"

Every parent wants the best for their child. The best toys, the best schools, the best holidays. Inspiring the best memories is no mean feat.

And every foodie knows that chefs and food lovers everywhere have their own tale of a gastronomic epiphany. For Anthony Bourdain, it is raw oysters from the gnarled hands of a French fisherman on a family holiday. For a food blogger close to our hearts there is the story of his five year old self finding a scallop shell on a beach in France and asking a local family to cook it for him.

I'm not sure I've got one. There's the reassuring smell of a Sunday roast cooking as the pressure cooker whistles to Pick Of The Pops on the radio. Or the spag bol hurled up the wall by a frustrated parent after my sister and I wouldn't stop bickering. Or just my gran's lemon curd tarts.

What if this was my son's food moment? Having recognised the life changing potential, I was almost duty bound to forego the usual, 'let's put them back now' before tipping sun-boiled marine life back into pools where they would probably prefer to be snapped up by the last crab in Cornwall rather than scooped up by the covetous family of rockpoolers lingering close behind.

"Are you sure you will eat them? Otherwise, it's cruel. Yes?"
Good boy.

Potential recipes instantly come to mind. Fried with garlic. Was that sea beet back near the car park? Clarified butter a la Morecombe potted shrimp variety.

But you can get carried away, apparently, and the water was getting a little too deep between us and the shore.

So, seven in the bucket, and we headed back in.

There is a tendency for fishermen, even rockpoolers, to exaggerate. But the contents of our bucket did attract some admiring and envious comments - from all ages - as we were packing up for home.

I was most reassured by the "bit of garlic and they'll be lovely" - even before I'd revealed our murderous intent.

Parents among them were no doubt thinking "I've put in the same hours and had no more than a morsel".

Homeward bound and I wasn’t too keen on the idea of a bucket of salty water sloshing around the back seat along Cornish country lanes. Or the prospect of finding an escapee in a few months time rotting down the side of the child car seat.

Top tip: prawns slot nicely into a small bottle of Buxton’s water (fresh water replaced by the bucket sea water.)

Back at the caravan it's shower and PJs time before tea (not for me, obviously).

I've given the prawns a quick anaesthetic dip in the fridge freezer compartment just in case - this is a first for both of us remember. I’ve cooked live lobster and river-poached crayfish before but still wasn’t sure whether these English prawn shrimp-like things were going to squeal, jump or just explode and spoil the moment.

Keeping it simple, bit of butter in a pan then in with the dozed prawns.

"What colour do you think they'll go?"

"Pink. Are they dead?" No-one likes a smart ass son.

For the faint-hearted there was a little wriggle by one, but that soon stopped and they settled down to the business of turning a tasty crispy pink colour. Flip over for a few more seconds and, they're done.

I popped one straight into my mouth (distraction is a key parental skill, as is being liberal with the truth - "yes, we only caught six"), crunch and chew, and it was the freshest prawn I'd tasted. A meaty, crunchy morsel, with a splash of the sea bursting out.

Being a responsible parent, I peeled my son's first home caught and cooked prawn and handed it to him.

"What do you think?"

I stood back.

My notebook was in reach, just waiting for the flash of inspiration - the ‘out of the mouths of babes’ universal truth that would lodge itself in our family folklore, that he'd Google in years to come, and chuckle as he recalled how that prawn had set him on course for three Michelin stars.

He chewed and swallowed.


"It's like a prawn. Can we eat the eyes?"

It's a start I suppose...

:: Dom Bailey is a writer and musician. His songs are here on

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