Shrimp Fishing on Horseback

SHRIMP FISHING ON HORSEBACK

Story

The Ingredient

A centuries-old tradition: in the Belgian region of Oostduinkerke, tough Brabant horses pull heavy nets into the shallows of the sea to catch shrimp. The catch may be small, but the taste is beyond compare. None of the twelve shrimp fishers can live from their work. Sometimes their catch is less than 10 kilos, too little to supply restaurants or markets reliably.

The shrimp fishers work in teams

It is low tide. The sea is far out. The hilly beach gently descends towards the water. The strong easterly wind leaves small waves on the sand – a natural relief of breathtaking beauty, giving an atmospheric contrast to the steep dunes. Stefaan Hancke and Chris Vermote slowly trot towards the surf on their Brabant horses. They are two of a dozen fishers who still bring in their catch on the backs of these robust horses.

THE COLD BLOODS ARE ENORMOUSLY STRONG

They drag long fishing nets behind them in which the shrimp are caught. The contents of these nets is true slow food. Pure, simple, authentic enjoyment that starts on the journey to its destination. And the perfect antidote to the huge trawlers that plough the oceans, destroying the sensitive balance of the underwater world.

‘I could never work like that because I love the sea’, says Chris Vermote. ‘I first dragged a net behind me and caught shrimp and fish here when I was 13 years old.’ What fas-cinates him in particular? ‘You feel the primal force of the water, the pull and current and tides. Whatever you catch just tastes fresh and unadulterated.’

A nice contrast to hectic daily life

"A nice contrast to hectic daily life"

‘There is something infinitely meditative: the sea, the waves, the coming and going of the tides. A nice contrast to hectic daily life’, according to the 36 year old who runs a fast-food restaurant with his wife, Nele. It is thanks to Nele Vermote, the only female shrimp fisher, that the family bought Brabant horses to start shrimping.

Nobody makes a living from shrimping any more

Nobody makes a living from shrimping any more

The tradition, originating in the 16th century, is of high value to the country and its people: Unesco recognised it as a World Heritage Site in 2013. But these days the shrimp catch is so small, and the prices so low, that it isn’t profita-ble. The price for a kilo is €8 – and sometimes the fishers don‘t even bring home 10 kilos. Not enough to supply a restaurant reliably.

Keeping family values alive

Keeping family values alive

For Stefaan Hancke, who comes from an old farming family, shrimp fishing is but an important and enjoyable way of passing time. Whenever he has time away from his car repair shop, the ocean calls him and his horses. ‘We have always had Brabant horses’, he says. ‘Their immense power has fascinated me since I was a small boy.’

Horse Power

Horse Power

This food comes from regions that I don’t really know and from greenhouses, which I don’t like. Transporting this food also involves costs and it pollutes the environment. So back then I made the effort to explore the Murgia with older people from the village, looking for edible wild plants, photographing them, classifying them, and I produced a handbook. I showed this book to a number of fruit and vegetable sellers in our region. Many of them are now once again selling old vegetable varieties and wild salad greens. So, for me, respect means knowing and understanding what nature has to offer in each season and how to prepare those foods. Anyone who orders a salad in our restaurant not only gets a dish rich in vitamins, but also a little bit of the natural history of our land. Food products are not consumer goods; they are the most intimate thing that we consume as human beings, because we ingest them via our mouths. We should all be aware of that.

NO SEAFOOD ON THE MENU

A few months ago, a good friend tried to open a fish restaurant in Montegrosso. I told him: “Your plans don’t make any sense to me. Guests who want to eat fish will get fresher products if they drive to Trani or Bisceglie 20 kilometres away. Here in Montegrosso, they should be eating fresh rapini, wild artichokes, tasty focaccia, and bruschetta with healthy olive oil from our region. Fish don’t grow on trees here, so what’s the point of serving fish in Montegrosso?”He thought about it for a little while and then he redesigned his menu. Another eight osterias have now opened in the area around Montegrosso. They follow a similar approach to us and therefore also drive the local economy. I only source wine from Apulia and the Basilicata region to ensure that the local winegrowers get the recognition they deserve. New dairies, organic farms, and artisanal business have emerged and even shepherds have returned to the area with their livestock. Furthermore, in our dishes, I only use olive oil that comes from Andria and Montegrosso. And what do you do when you are invited to conferences and trade fairs abroad? I always have two or three bottles of olive oil from Montegrosso with me in my luggage.

Garnalenvissers te paard

"Garnalenvissers te paard"

Low tide lasts about three hours, then the water begins to rise again and it is time for the fishers to make their way back. They must hurry so the live shrimp are as fresh as possible when they reach the pot. They are cooked in fresh saltwater until their light grey has become a gentle pink. Then, neighbours and friends are invited around to eat together and see out the day. Because that is an important part of the ritual that characterises a ‘Garnalenvissers te paard’, as the shrimp fishers are known in the region: the feeling of community is strengthened and ensures that the whole historical undertaking – and this piece of the Earth – does not get forgotten.

Who is Stefaan Hancke

Who is Stefaan Hancke?

We are used to being able to eat anything during any season. While that may be good for us, it is bad for the climate and for quality. Slow Food once again makes eating both regional and seasonal.

Brabant Horses

Brabant Horses

Brabant horses are a cold blood breed and are used as cart horses in for-ests and on rough terrain to this day. When they are young, their muscles are built up slowly. Only once the neck and back are strong enough are they allowed to pull heavy loads. They are introduced to the sea in high summer, when the cool water is a welcome break from high temperatures.

As many fresh shrimp as you can eat

Instead of tipping the entire catch into a saucepan, the fresh shrimp are spread out on a large stone plate and hand-sorted. Only the best shrimp are sprinkled into the boiling saltwater and simmered for a few minutes on a low heat. The shell is very fine and the flavour very fresh. This is why the locals like to devour the crustaceans in one piece – head, shell and all. Peeling is easy when you know how: first the head, then the shell is carefully removed, starting at the belly. Finally, the tail is easily dislodged by gen-tly moving it to and fro. The shells are also a nutritious ingredient: when cooked with onions, celery, carrots and tomatoes, they form the perfect base for a delectable shrimp soup. The shells are sieved out and replaced with fresh shrimp. Delicious!

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