Wednesday, 30 September 2009

The Caviar Mystery

A few percentage of people have tasted the highest quality sturgeon caviar, only few people appreciate the finest caviar, most people are confused by the variations of caviar, all are shocked by the price of caviar.

A short time ago I had never tasted any caviar then as luck would have it I was invited to a tasting. The then London based Kaspia caviar rep took my colleague and I aside and led us through the full range of caviars available to the man on the street. This amazing experience opened my eyes to the breathtaking tastes and variations caviar has to offer. For a while we sold these products very successfully until a 60% price rise over a period of 4 months ended our dealings. However, over the 2 years of selling caviar I made it my business to understand the product I was selling and realised how confusing outlets can make it when selling caviar. My research led me to Harrods, selling caviar from Kazakhstan as Russian (back tracked when I pointed out bar code labelling), Fortnum & Mason, selling Iranian caviar over 2 years old, Selfridges, who sold one of our customers farmed caviar as wild and the best of all a small polish deli in Streatham offering 500g of Iranian Beluga for £150 – true retail value nearer to £4000. So all very confusing, but when such a mysterious high valued product is for sale some unscrupulous trading will always happen.

Caviar from where?

Firstly the harvest and sale of black caviar was banned in Russia from August 1, 2007, apart for scientific research. At the time the species was in serious decline, even threatened with extinction. Anyone that attempts to sell you Russian caviar in a store or restaurant is either misleading you or selling an illegal product.

Since the cessation of Russian caviar supply the Iranian wild caviar is now deemed the finest available. Additionally, three other countries with Caspian Sea coast lines harvest high quality wild caviar; Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, and eastern Azerbaijan. Of these Azerbaijan is deemed as producing the highest quality. From here we move to farmed caviars produced to a high quality in France and Italy and to a lesser extent in Bulgaria and I understand there is now organically farmed Spanish caviar available.

Varieties of Sturgeon Caviar

Probably the most understood part of the caviar mystery is the names of the predominant species. Everybody knows the name beluga, the largest of the sturgeon, producing the largest egg. Beluga is deemed the finest of all the caviars, something I whole heartily agree with. Oscietra is thought of as the second largest of the Caspian sturgeon that produces three varieties of egg. However, the reason it produces a number of coloured eggs is that Oscietra is more of a description of a type of caviar rather than being limited to the caviar of one single species. Although more often than not it tends to mean the caviar of the Russian Sturgeon (
Acipenser gueldenstaedtii), several other sturgeon produce similar small grained nutty flavoured eggs which are also categorised and sold as osetra caviar. This is the reason why osetra caviar has a reputation for being somewhat variable in colour, flavour and size. We recognise the eggs as the dark, or original for ease of description, the golden Oscietra, and the most sought after of all the caviars the white/golden or better known as Almas. The third of the wild Caspian sturgeon is the Sevruga which produces a much smaller saltier egg deemed the finest of the canopy dressing by many. Those that champion the cause of farmed or cultivated seafood products will argue that there is little difference in taste between produced and the wild eggs. There is such an amazing difference in taste it is overwhelming. From the clean crisp tantalising taste of the golden Oscietra to the thick muddy, almost farmed trout taste, of the farmed Baeri. Granted, if you have not had the chance to taste the upper echelons you may be happy with the inferior option, but I promise once you have tasted the real black there ain’t no going back. So in ascending order of quality, and unsurprisingly price, these are the farmed species of available caviar: Baeri, Baccari, White Sturgeon, Bassetra, Farmed Oscietra.

The Sales Pitch

When caviar was in abundance, because many sized fish were available for capture, their eggs could be graded into distinct sizes. As with any over exploited species the harvest size ultimately reduces and as this fish is being targeted for just its roe it will be caught as soon as it reaches maturity. This means all roe from a single species will now generally be of one size. The addition on tins or jars of grade sizes such as x, xx and xxx, and terms such as Royal, Private Reserve, Imperial and Premium are generally nonsense sales pitches. Historically they had relevance when producing caviar for the Russian czars, but now have no relevance if only for squeezing that extra penny from the American tourists shopping in London’s top stores. Do not be misled by this labeling and just ignore any salesman’s pitch that uses it.

The Important part

Reading this may have tempted you into buying and trying caviar. You may already indulge occasionally or maybe you have it for second course breakfast, after porridge oats, like the boss of one of our customers (absolutely true). What ever bracket you fall into it is an expensive luxury, one that you probably hand on heart know little about. There is one critical piece of information you need to understand before you hand you money over. Something that will distinguish you from the man in front. On the rear of every jar is a small set of serial numbers that outlines everything you need to know.


Firstly is the Standard species code: CITES has determined three-letter codes for the identification of sturgeon and paddlefish species, hybrids and mixed species. 'HUS', for example, is the standard species code for Beluga Huso huso.

Acipenser baerii: Siberian Sturgeon BAE
Acipenser baerii baicalensis: Baikal Sturgeon BAI
Acipenser gueldenstaedtii: Russian Sturgeon GUE (mainly Oscietra)
Acipenser naccarii: Adriatic Sturgeon (Italian Sturgeon) NAC
Acipenser oxyrhynchus: Atlantic Sturgeon OXY
Acipenser persicus: Persian Sturgeon PER
Acipenser ruthenus: Sterlet RUT
Acipenser sinensis: Chinese Sturgeon SIN
Acipenser stellatus: Stellate Sturgeon STE (Sevruga)
Acipenser sturio: Common Sturgeon (Baltic Sturgeon) STU
Acipenser transmontanus:White Sturgeon TRA
Huso huso: Giant sturgeon (Beluga, Great Sturgeon) HUS
Mixed species (for 'pressed' caviar exclusively) MIX

Second is the hugely important source code
Either ‘W’ for wild of ‘C’ for captive bred or farmed in real terms

Thirdly Country of Origin
This is the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) two-letter code for the country of origin, e.g. RU for the Russian Federation.
AZ – Azerbaijan
BG – Bulagia
FR – France
IR - Iran
IT – Italy
KZ – Kazakstan
RU – Russia
UZ – Uzbekistan

Fourthly the year of harvest.

Fifth is Official registration code of the processing plant: Each exporting country should establish a national registration system for processing plants, with official registration codes assigned to each. This number corresponds to that code. This code could be prefixed with a country code if the product has been re-packaged.

Last is the Lot identification number: This is a number that corresponds to information related to the caviar tracking system used by the processing or re-packaging plant.

So there it is - Your checklist

Firstly the species matches what is on the tin to the serial number. Most expensive will be Almas, then Beluga, then the Golden Oscietra followed by Oscietra or Sevruga depending on harvest levels. As for farmed the Oscietra will always be the highest valued followed by the white sturgeon. I suggest you forget the rest.
Wild or captive bred? Check as this will alter the price by up to 50% and is the most common area you will be misled.
You can now tell its origins. For reference the most expensive will be from IR, followed by AZ, then the UZ and TZ. Then the farmed - probably IT, then FR and finally BU. If it says RU it is incorrectly labeled.
The year of harvest is the last point of interest. Wild is harvested twice a year. Around February and then again in October. There is no definition as to which harvest this will be, however, NEVER buy caviar with a harvest date that isn’t in the current year. It has a shelf life, a short one, so be careful as it can be a costly error.

Enjoy your tasting and remember – always eat your caviar from the back of a mother of pearl spoon accompanied by a glass of high quality pink champagne.

Monday, 28 September 2009

The Sushi Sashimi Confusion - Can you tell the difference between fresh and old?

It would seem everybody knows best when it comes to buying fish, especially when they want to eat it raw. Mrs X, who could not tell the difference between a fish caught last night too a fish a week old or previously frozen all of a sudden has Japanese routes and is the utmost knowledge on sashimi! We are regularly told that fish in London is not fresh enough to eat raw; then these people will head to itsu, prêt or even Marks & Spencer to purchase a pre-pack sushi with a use by date. I do not profess to be an expert in the art of sushi and sashimi, but I have undertaken the making and eating of raw fish to levels of success. In this blog I will tell you what I tell my customers on a daily basis hoping it will help you when buying fish.

What species?

Firstly the fish you use does need to be the correct species to produce quality sushi or sashimi. Bear in mind a number of fish you would eat in Japanese restaurants do not frequent British or European shores. I therefore suggest not buying or using the following fish if making your own sashimi: Yellow Tail, Surf Clam, Abalone and Sea Urchin (European species very different to Asian). The British Isles does yield some great species that are suitable for Japanese cuisine: salmon, sea bass, brill, mackerel, sardine, eel, crab (cooked), squid, octopus, shrimp, sea bream, scallops and lemon sole. Tuna is commonly used and offers a good flavour due to it being imported into the UK at levels of high quality.

What Quality?

So you are now knowledgeable enough on what species too look for at your fishmonger, but what are you looking for with regards freshness? Firstly don’t bother going through the ‘what’s fresh enough to eat raw today’ or ‘what is the best day to buy fresh fish’ scenarios with the monger. More often than not they will have as much clue as you and will then tend to bluff their way through trying to sell you what they want. Instead use that time to cast your eye across the counter. See what looks fresh – shiny and appealing – does it look still alive? You need to become confident to decide on your own just by looking.

Apart from salmon, which is normally sold as fillet, and tuna that normally enters the country in large boneless pieces, avoid buying fillets of the fish species mentioned above. They have been filleted for a reason – normally to disguise aging - discoloured grey skin, clouded eyes, soft flesh, white gills and so on. This is a usual method undertaken by supermarkets that normally receive their fish in an already deteriorating condition. I have also seen many circumstances of this at fishmongers across Europe. However, don’t be confused by the various white fish fillets such as cod, haddock, Pollack and plaice you will see on the slab. These have been filleted at sea and this is the best way to keep such species in peak condition (they do not have an application in sashimi).

Salmon & Tuna

In the UK these are the two most commonly used fish for homemade sashimi. It may surprise you to hear that there are 6 grades of yellow fin tuna, with ‘1’ being the finest. I am confident you would never have seen anything above a 2/3 anywhere in the UK. That doesn’t mean to say grades 2 and 3 are not of high enough quality to eat raw, however, the consistency does vary dramatically. Personally I have a hatred of selling tuna. The quality is inconsistent, the supply has no continuity and the wastage is higher that any other product. I do foresee a huge reduction of tuna available to our markets as the value of yellow fin rockets alongside the withdrawal of the blufin. Maybe we will not have to discuss tuna at all very soon (fingers crossed). When looking for tuna make sure it is firm and has as little sinew as possible as this will make thin slicing very difficult. It mush have NO smell at all and be appealing to the eye. Colours will vary and in my opinion the slightly darker cuts are better. Try to avoid the bright pink varieties as some unscrupulous fish traders (recorded in areas of Spain) will dye grey tuna too red. Avoid grey or brown coloured tuna. When on a slab it can be a little more difficult to recognise between qualities of salmon as so many variations are available. Again does it appeal to the eye? Bright and shiny, preferably scales on the skin (my reasoning for this is that higher quality whole salmon arrive in peak condition which includes firm skin - lower quality soft fleshed salmon will have lost a lot of scales). Look and see how well has it been pin boned. Do not be misled into thinking that because there are tears along the pin bone line the fish is old. On the contrary. The fresher the fish, this includes all species, the harder it is to remove pin bones – fact. This does not mean a competent boner cannot remove pin bones without tearing the flesh, but my point is that maybe not everything you see is immediately obvious so do not jump to conclusions. Farmed salmon does seem to apply itself better to sashimi due to its slightly higher fat content (if you get a chance to try wild salmon as sashimi it is amazing). There is no reason as why you could not use farmed organic salmon as a replacement if you are able to find a fresh enough product – I haven’t as yet. Farmed salmon is a fairly cheap product so you do get what you pay for. Most importantly it must not smell at all. Lastly ask for it to be skinned but then take it home to slice yourself as it is easy to do and it is good to practice.

Note the brightly coloured appealing flesh. Avoided faded or patchy flesh usually discoloured by ice damage or aging. Note the white fat lines of the farmed salmon

Sea Bass & Sea Bream

These two species are great for sashimi with their firm whitish/grey flesh with a slight oil content. Wild sea bass will yield the best product and wild gilthead bream, if they can be found, would be equally as good. Farmed gilthead bream, if fresh, are also very good as they are oilier still – farmed bass is a product I would avoid cooked or raw. The points to look for, in order, when buying these fish: firm flesh, shiny skin, fish still in rigor-mortis, red odourless gills, slim not a large stomach, bright eyes. I do not hold clear eyes as the defining freshness factor although it is a helpful guide. Ask your fishmonger to fillet and skin your fish, but I would suggest you leave the pin bones in as they will tear the fish to ribbons if removed. When you get your fillets home slice them as a D-Cut removing the bones as and when you find them. An important tip is that black bream, couches bream, rays bream and red bream do not offer the same type of flesh as the Gilthead Bream.

Bright and shiny body and stunning eyes - all key to look for

Gilthead Bream (farmed above, wild below) See how the body of a fresh fish shines

Brill & lemon Sole

The brill is a great fish for sashimi if found at a high enough quality. We have also found many of our Japanese customers taking to lemon sole as an alternative as they are slightly smaller. The brill, however, is the better of the two as it yields a slightly off white/grey flesh not unlike the bass. Make sure the fishmonger leaves the fin ray ends when he skins the fish as they are a delicacy in Japanese cuisine. Again the same rules apply when choosing your fish with most emphasis put on flesh firmness. The eyes of flatfish, due to the size, discolour very quickly so can not really be used as an indication. Also the gills are small and obscured so yield little helpful information on freshness.

Stunningly fresh brill in rigor-mortis. See what beautiful light brown colour a fresh fish offers

Amazing golden Cornish lemon soles - exactly what to look for. Older fish will grey very quickly.

Mackerel & Sardines

Some of the hardest fish to find are fresh mackerel and sardines. The natural colour of the raw flesh should be dark reddish, however, diet and spawning seasons affect the colour dramatically. Whitish flesh is common and does not mean the fish is old, but is not quite so good for sashimi. Bear in mind it is impossible for the fishmonger to know the flesh colour of the fish before he fillets them. A fresh mackerel can be spotted a mile off. Stiff from head to tail, green flashing across the flanks, nice red gills and lovely firm flesh. They are the true indication of a fishmonger’s quality therefore always start by looking at them as this will give a good indication of the quality he buys. With mackerel you do get what you pay for. Although they are deemed as a cheap fish, prices ranging from 2.80 to 9.95 per kilo, you really will get rubbish if you pay less than 6.95. Avoid the small watery looking fish as these are from trawled Scottish fisheries and sold by supermarkets and mongers as they have a very cheap wholesale price. Try and find large line caught fish as these will be days fresher and much meatier.

Lovely big hook and line caught mackerel still offering their green flanks


For sashimi always go for live in the shell and learn to cut them out just before you use them as the resulting taste is phenomenal. You may be able to buy diver caught scallops, although expensive, from good fishmongers or smaller trawl collected scallops in their shells in dozens by pre ordering. Some pre cut scallops are good enough for sashimi but why take the risk. Pre-plan, order in advance, and end up with the best product. One point to note is that many people believe a scallop should be a large plump white piece of meat. In fact the natural colour of a scallop is an off whitish grey. The plump white scallop you sometimes see is water soaked to add weight like the chicken breast in Tesco – extra weight equals money – avoid at all costs.

Huge Scottish diver caught scallops

Cephalopods – Octopus and Squid

Cooked Octopus and raw squid are commonly used in sashimi and sushi. Both are caught inshore from the English coast thus good quality should be available. Squid and octopus have green and blue eyes respectively and are a very good indication of extreme freshness. Additional with the English species, the whiter the flesh the better the quality. If the flesh is pinking, usually the wings on a squid or the legs of the octopus, this means it is on the turn and should be avoided. Look again for firmness as this is key to freshness. Have you fishmonger clean the inside and remove the beak but do not automatically have it skinned as cephalopod skin does offer a cheeky and unusual alternative flavour to the dish.

The beautiful blue eye of a stunningly fresh Cornish octopus

Beautiful pure white jigged squid. Note the colour still in the eyes.


Usually cooked when served as sushi so either buy a live crab and cook it yourself or purchase hand picked un-pasteurised un-frozen white meat. Buying a live crab does not always mean quality as the condition varies throughout the year. Avoid hen crabs in January through to the end of May and cock crabs from September through to the end of December. A very top tip is that if you are given the choice pick a crab with barnacles on the shell. Barnacles reside in food rich areas that high quality crabs benefit from. If buying ready cooked meat make sure it offers 3 or more days shelf life. The maximum shelf life fresh un-pasteurised meat should offer is 5 days so any longer it is either old or pasteurised being sold as fresh.

So that is all very straight forward – or is it? How about the frozen debate? There seems to be no guidelines that relate to what quantifies sushi grade fish. In the US there is some confusion regarding the “parasite destruction guarantee, which is accomplished by 'freezing and storing seafood at -4°F (-20°C) or below for 7 days (total time), or freezing at -31°F (-35°C) or below until solid and storing at -31°F (-35°C) or below for 15 hours, or freezing at -31°F (-35°C) or below until solid and storing at -4°F (-20°C) or below for 24 hours' which is sufficient to kill parasites” (ref There seems no mention of this in any British guidelines. I am unsure quite how relevant it is as the Japanese have been eating raw fish many months before freezers were invented!! Maybe I can squeeze a blog post on this in the future.

Monday, 21 September 2009

Salmon is the Winner

Seafish’s recent survey has shown we are all eating nearly twice as much salmon in the UK compared to its nearest rival tuna. This, I imagine, is the result of salmon being both the cheapest available fish and the most readily available in the supermarkets. As mentioned tuna is second, but this may reduce in the next survey with the recent bad press received from the ‘end of the line documentary’. Third and forth are cod and haddock respectively – the countries two favourite cuts. Amazingly Pollack has climbed into the top ten, in at number eight. Its success is most likely due to the championing of this fish by celebrity chefs such like Hugh Fearnly. Seriously though, once you have tasted it you won’t have it again, especially as its increase in popularity has brought the price almost level to haddock (a nice fish).

The list is as follows:


Value (£m)

Volume (tonnes)













Warmwater Prawns



Coldwater Prawns















Very different scenario in Chelsea with the following being our top ten sellers. The figures would not be accurate so I give you just a species order.

Wild Sea Bass



Dover Sole

Lemon Sole

Atlantic Halibut

Native Lobster

Picked White Crab meat


Warmwater Prawns

Saturday, 19 September 2009

Weird, wonderful and beautiful

My boys at Newlyn fish send me the finest fish available anywhere in the country. This, coupled with my fisheries science background, allows us to offer great information to our customers on the products they buy. I feel it is very important to know your product to make it an interesting shopping experience for all the customers. On occasions we are sent some great fish which we use as points of interest. Most are not really edible, however, they always find a home. Any of you who may have dined at Bocca di Lupo in Soho may have noticed some great works of art on the wall. The fish were all from our shop including the silver dory, the rays and the garfish.

Silver Dory

Torpedo Ray (species of electric ray)

Twaites Shad

Female Cuckoo Wrasse (male is blue and yellow)

Whole Monkfish

Greater Weaver fish (lesser weaver short, stumpy and lies in sand with poisonous spine protruding)

Wild Gilthead Bream (99.9% you will see are farmed)

The wrasse and Gilthead Bream are fond favourite of mine as they where the centre stage of the Atlantic talk i used to give at the London Aquarium. They deserve there own posts by right so best get writing.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Is Undyed Understood?

The trials and tribulations of a fishmonger!! You spend 4 years selling smoked haddock from Grimsby, never really that happy with it, never really knowing much about it, then all of a sudden it happens. A new product appears in front of you. Smoked haddock daily fresh from Cornwall with that amazing freshly smoked smell. But there is a problem? Likened to the farmed/farmed organic salmon scenario where the organic, much the newer product, has attempted to distinguish itself by being a much paler colour, the ‘undyed’ smoked haddock has become almost white over the past few years; the natural colour of smoked fish is a dull orange/yellow. Now it is understood the dying of smoked haddock started in the second world war when the discharge of smoke into the air was seen as ‘come and bomb us smoke signals'. Not sure how true this is as very little fishing was undertaking throughout this period so not sure how much haddock was really available to smoke. However, dyed smoked haddock is a very bright yellow colour, not that unlike the natural product that is more orange. So the problem that now occurs is that returning to the original undyed smoked haddock seems frowned upon as its colour is likened to the supermarket dyed haddock and far removed from the white, rather dry product many have been selling. The face pulled by the lady customer today said it all. 'We were lying and this smoked haddock was obviously dyed, but being sold as undyed'. It’s a shame that an element are so stubborn and naive that they are unwilling to listen to or accept a description or explanation. Her loss. If you pass by our shop pop in and buy some. I generally would not use this blog as a sales pitch, but this smoked haddock may just make you realise the difference between conformity and quality.

The natural colour of this top quality product can be viewed at the Through the gaps blog that centres around the Newlyn fishing industry

Any Calamari????

So what is calamari? and why do us Brits just take a European name and generally throw it around incorrectly. Well the majority will ask for calamari at their fishmongers and go home with squid. What is the difference? Well they are different species. The easiest way to distinguish is by looking at the side fins or wings. The calamari, most commonly see on the slabs in the Mediterranean, have wings that run the full length of the body opposed to the squid or ‘arrow squid’ that have wings about a third the length.

Biologically the calamari is an inshore species generally jig caught whereas the majority of squid species undertake lengthy migrations and are caught by trawl methods. The colours of the European species vary with the squid usually being very white in colour and the calamari sometimes very red. On a final note - when you hear the ‘know it all’ in front of you in the queue attempt to embarrass the trainee fishmonger by telling him ‘calamari is Italian for squid’ allow yourself a rye smile as you now know it is really a Greek word.

Calamari - Reddish in colour and wings full length of the body.

Arrow squid - White in colour with short wings a third the length of the body.

Monday, 14 September 2009

What a mist'hake' to make

Our fish stocks are in the safe hands of the European Union!!!

If you have had the thumb twiddling experience of sitting through the recent documentary ‘The end of the line’ where the concern centres around one species – the blufin tuna. Then endured people rising to their feet in tears around you at the end of the film congratulating each other with smiles and taps on the back in a great big ‘well done us’ group hug grossly unaware of what they have actually just watched and what little impact it will have on fisheries that do not yield blufin tuna. Then seen the celeb restaurants and chefs joining the London Paper’s ‘Aren’t we all so green’ save our stocks campaign as it. Did anyone really believe Pret used the highest valued fish – the blufin tuna – in their £2 tuna and mayo baguettes? Of course these documentaries yield hugely important messages, but the problem is that many viewers don’t understand them, an information overload.

The truth is that the blufin tuna, whilst critically endangered, is not alone. Numerous fish species are critically endangered or face potential population collapse. The blufin got lucky, it was the chosen one for a world wide documentary because of its importance to the sashimi market, its sheer jaw dropping size and its ability to bleed heavily when gaffed – all important when generating shock factor. However, these factors might just help save the species.

Let me give you one great example of governmental pressure aiding the over fishing of a species more local to us. Recently the French president Sarkozy pressured the EU, the self proclaimed protectors of our fisheries, to decrease the gill net size of a specific fishing gear from 110mm to 100mm in area 7 of the North Atlantic. This gear change would increase the total hake landings by Spanish owned vessels, registered in France, by 300 tonnes per week; all from the fishing areas of west Ireland. The result in this incremental mesh size alteration has to be the capture of a completely new year class of hake around 1kg in size. Now although they are not undersized they are on the borderline thus a mass removal of a year class that is unlikely to ever reach maturity. This will be disastrous for both the species involved and the small fishing communities of the Irish coast that have relied upon large hake for many generations. The EU is allowing hake stocks along the entire west coast of Ireland to be decimated. How can they allow this whilst claiming to be concerned with stock conservation? Interestingly the Irish vessels have decided not to set 100mm nets as they feel it would be detrimental long term. They will have to sit and watch their fishery be emptied by other EU vessels. It seems unlikely the ruling will be overturned the near future.

So lets shed some tears, shake hands and have a big group hug to celebrate the EUs incredibly bad decision making and easy yielding to major countries pressures, to the documentary makers inability to offer information past one species and one fishery and the ability of the press to take a subject they have absolutely no understanding of and confuse the reader further still. Additionally, Lets not forget those that jump on the bandwagon when it suits them.

Which Prawn? - A Simple Guide

Buying prawns can be very confusing as many sizes and varieties are available. Firstly one has to get their head around the difference between warm and coldwater prawns with the warm ones then being split into saltwater and freshwater. Then of course there are cooked, raw, peeled, whole, headless block……….

So let me tell you what I know about the prawns and shrimps that are most readily available.

North Atlantic Pink Shrimps

These are the favourite of the ‘pint of prawns’ or the classic prawn cocktail. Caught mainly in the high North Atlantic (Greenland, Norway, Faros, Latvia) they are cooked, processed and frozen on board and these will always be sold frozen or defrosted in the UK. The shell on variety are some of the tastiest prawns you will ever lay your hands on; juicy, firm and sweet.

On the other hand the peeled varieties are pretty dam tasteless hence best being covered in a Marie Rose sauce and served with iceberg lettuce. Always buy the shell on variety.

North Atlantic Brown Shrimps

The majority of the UK’s are caught inshore from Norfolk, Lancashire or off the Welsh coast. Some of the most famous British products use these including Baxters and Morecambe Bay potted shrimps. They are all cooked before sale and can be bought in 2kg bags or pints of shell on, generally frozen or defrosted, or as peeled with clarified butter. The alternative is to buy small packets of peeled Dutch or Belgium peeled brown shrimps known as crevette grise, but although they are tasty they are packed in a modified atmosphere and do contain a number of preservatives.

North Atlantic Fresh Shrimps

Occasionally you will be lucky enough to stumble across raw fresh hand net caught shrimps from areas around Poole bay in Dorset and the south west. So unusual that we will not dwell, but if you see them buy them. Avoid orange ones as they died in the nets and the fresh ones may still be twitching of flipping – a real treat in flavour.

North Atlantic Prawn - Langoustine

These are the cream of the crop when it comes to prawns. Caught in the high cold waters of the North Atlantic they are sought after by the French, Italian and Spanish. The two catch methods, Creels (pots) and bottom trawled offer two totally different products that hold substantially different price tags. Langoustines can be bought frozen whole and in tail form but neither products represent the true quality of the product. They can also be bought fresh and these are known as dipped due to the addition of preservative called sodium metabisulfite to prolong the product life. This is usual for all imported fresh prawns as they undertake a quick degradable process; it is a legal carried out practice across the world and perfectly safe. The ultimate Langoustine is a live product that offers the utmost taste and texture. These are expensive but really do give the finest taste of any prawn.

Warm Saltwater Prawns – Raw

The most commonly seen prawn on a fishmongers slab is the raw black or white tiger prawn. The black are usually larger and generally wild. Many will know them as Madagascan prawns, a term used by a lot of outlets, but this is a bit misleading. The majority do, however, come from African waters further North. There are a few wild white tiger prawns available, also African, but more often than not you will find farmed products; usually from Brazil, Ecuador or other south American countries and some Asian countries. There are some certified organic prawns from Ecuador but I have never been able to find anyone to supply this product. These prawns can be fairly expensive so look for the following. The heads need to be attached and not hanging from the body. Avoid prawns with very orange heads. Also look for a nice firm springy tail. All of these prawns have been frozen irrespective of what the man behind the counter may say. They are a warm water, highly degradable product that travels from another continent - they have to be frozen. However, if you follow the tips above with what to look for you will be buying a high quality tasty product. Just to note the large black wild tigers can be bought in frozen 1kg boxes which reduces cost.

Both types of prawn are very good options for head turning starters, impressive main courses, tempura or on barbeque. They are an expensive item to have peeled as an addition to a curry as other cheaper options are available. The very large black tigers, known in the trade as U10s (a size grade) make an excellent alternative to lobster meat in pasta or risotto dishes.

Warm Saltwater Prawns – Frozen

The quality of these products varies immensely and are tarnished with much bad press regarding farming methods and local habitat destruction (mangrove) issues. Salination and chemical pollution of drinking water and agricultural land also frequently result from prawn farming. An interesting, but a little out of date article on farming prawns in Vietnam et al. can be read here Is it OK to eat tiger prawns? It is well worth a browse but as with all ‘fish stock’ related newspaper articles try to filter the scaremongering ‘shock’ factor.

These prawns offer good value. The peeled and de-veined variety is a must for curries and bbq skewers when a heavy marinade of chilli and garlic is used. They offer little in taste and sometimes can be a little earthy. The texture is ideal for the aforementioned cooking methods but maybe avoid in few strong flavours are used in the dish. The other main variety of frozen prawns is smaller black tigers frozen whole in blocks of about a kilo. Not really sure what these really offer apart from being cheap. Have tried a few times and can come across a little powdery in texture

Warm Freshwater Prawns – Frozen

These are one of the most commonly used type of prawns in a restaurant. Bought in frozen water blocks, usually headless, and generally defrosted under running water. Personally i have not sold or eaten these so have little opinion on the product.