Every summer many holidaymakers head for the Mediterranean with one particular objective in mind – that when the unpacking is done they will wander down to a restaurant by the water's edge and begin to unwind with a large plate of langoustines, a bowl of tangy mayonnaise, some crusty bread and a bottle, or two, of crisp white wine.
Of all those who do so, most will remain ignorant of the fact that these delicious shellfish will have travelled almost as far, if not further, as they have. Most langoustines, or scampi tails or Dublin Bay prawns as they are also described on many restaurant menus, are actually caught in the cold waters off the coast of Northern Ireland or in the even wilder waters off the northern Scottish coast. But then, rather than finding their way into the kitchens of the better Scottish restaurants or even down to London, they are promptly loaded into iced boxes and air freighted out to fish wholesalers in France, Italy, Spain and Portugal and from there to the kitchens of chefs in Nice, Barcelona, St Tropez and the Algarve.
This has gone on for the past 30 years or more as the British approach to eating langoustines has been as different to the rest of the EU as our approach to which side of the road we drive on. While our fellow Europeans have appreciated the pleasures of picking a freshly boiled langoustine to pieces using fingers, a small lever to crush the bones and a long, thin fork to pick out the juiciest meat from the claws and the feet we in the UK have made do with the much smaller, second rate examples which are frozen at sea, dipped in breadcrumbs and subsequently fried to a nice, rubbery texture. Scampi in a basket, so widely available in pubs for so long, is not really a noble end for these magnificent crustaceans.
Happily, in a most unlikely association this will now change as an increasing number of these succulent langoustines will become more widely available to restaurant goers in the UK, thanks to a working relationship forged on a bobbing langoustine fishing boat off the coast of Stornoway between Mitchell Tonks, who founded the Fish Works restaurants, and Michael Mitchell of the mighty Young's Fisheries.
Tonks, who gave up accountancy to pursue his passion of selling fish and then went into the restaurant business when he saw that no-one was doing what he wanted - serving the freshest fish possible as simply as possible, -has long been a langoustine fan. But like many other chefs and restaurateurs in this country he believed that the only way to buy, cook and eat them was to do so when they were as fresh as possible. But this was never easy because so many were being exported – of the annual catch of langoustines from around the UK worth £200 million only £40 million worth stays in this country.
Young's, who sell the vast majority of langoustines in the UK, were keen to change this rather lopsided arrangement and were encouraged by a £2 million research project undertaken by the University of Glasgow which showed that the critical factor in how a langoustine tastes is not how quickly it is cooked after it has been caught but actually how it is caught. If the langoustines are 'stressed' by being hauled to the boat too quickly they will develop a bitter taste but if they are brought from the deep more gradually then this will not happen.
Technology then played its part. Computers and scanners were installed on many of the langoustine boats to allow the proper monitoring of how these crustaceans are caught to ensure for example that in future no catch is subject to this stress factor and, perhaps even more importantly, that when boats come across an area of spawning langoustines, they sail on. A monitor has now been installed in Fish Works restaurant in Marylebone High Street which passes on all this information, so any langoustine fan can enjoy a meal there knowing just who caught the catch, where and when with the added comfort that they were all landed unstressed.
Tonks is now even more of a langoustine fan than he was and looks forward to selling, and eating, even more and to installing the monitors in the rest of his nine restaurants which stretch across the south of the UK from Bristol to Christchurch in Kent. But as someone who has invested so much time, effort and passion into converting people to eating fish he hopes that this will actually be the beginning of something even bigger. "There is no doubt that eating fish is good for you but we have to ensure that our catches are sustainable. Now that this system has been introduced for langoustines and seems to be working for all parties – my chefs and my customers, the fishermen and the long term future of our langoustine stocks – I do hope that we can soon introduce something similar with the fisheries we work with on the south coast."
See www.fishworks.co.uk for full details of Fish Works restaurants.
Roger Jones, The Harrow Inn at Little Bedwyn:
Dare I make a correction on Nick's article above? Langoustines are not packed in ice and airfreighted to Europe They are sent in vivier trucks. These carry a storage system which keeps shellfish in the exact environment that they are used to, hence keeping them in perfect condition till they arrive at their destination. These systems can keep these langoustines live and flapping for days, hence when you go to a market in Spain or France, the little darlings are jumping around on the fish counter. The system can vary the condition of the water to suit the contents. The word vivier comes from the french word vivre - to live. These systems have been around for about 20 years Packing langoustines in polystyrene boxes packed with ice, unable to move, is a cruel way to end their lives, dying in their own liquid and melted ice.
Many thanks for that on behalf of langoustines everywhere. Are you still on holiday in Malaysia?