F U R N E S S F I S H & G A M E
Les Salisbury Ulverston, Cumbria
Les Salisbury junior manages the stand in the market; the stock is supplied by his father, Les (Leslie) senior, who is currently based at Ulverston, on the coast of Morecambe Bay (although he will soon be moving to larger, smarter premises at Flookburgh, a few miles further east). The Salisburys have been fishermen for at least five generations. As a little boy, Les senior used to go shrimping with his great-grandfather, who made him walk ahead of his horse to test the sand. In those days, the shrimp-catchers attached their nets to horse-drawn carts. I'm told that the horses loved their trips to the beach even though they sometime had to paddle in water up to their stomachs. On a busy day at low tide, the beach would be dotted with horses and carts, marking the channels of water in which the shrimps were trapped. Once, according to local tradition, as many as seventy-six were counted. As this suggests, the supply of shrimps at that time was plentiful: now, probably because the bay is slowly silting up and the channels of water are becoming shallower, it has dwindled to the point where there are only a dozen fishermen left. Needless to say, horses and carts have long since been replaced by tractors, which can go faster and in deeper water. I saw Les', with several others, parked on the shingle just above the tide-line: they all looked fairly rusty, but that's inevitable, given their continuous exposure to salt.
Morecambe Bay, looking out over the Irish Sea towards the Isle of Man, is not only a shrimping-ground but a natural harbour for fishing-boats bound for seas as far north as Iceland. Except for The Wash off Norfolk, it is the biggest bay in England: standing on the sands just west of Ulverston, you can scarcely see as far as the other side. The beach is given character, not by cliffs or dunes but the fact that trees grow right down to the sea, as on the west coast of Ireland, so that you could sit at the top of the beach without needing a sunshade (or, come to that, an umbrella. This is England!) The flat seabed means that the tide goes out an exceptionally long way, which is dangerous for anyone not knowing the coast because it comes in with astonishing speed. There are also currents which pose a threat even to very strong swimmers: hence the tragedy of the drowned cockle-pickers a few years ago. Far more dramatically than with the shrimps, however, the cockles have now completely disappeared. In this instance, no one can suggest why: perhaps it was due to over-fishing but, as Les junior points out, fish change habitat for subtle reasons. I used to fish for mackerel off the coast of Wales: some years you could catch more fish in three minutes than you could eat whereas at other times not a single one was to be seen in a month.
Furness is particularly well known for Morecambe Bay potted shrimps, but also sells the huge variety of other fish landed in the bay. In the interests of sustainability, Les never stocks young dish (which, for example, cuts out the small haddock used for smokies). In fact, however, as its name suggests, Furness was started to sell not only fish but poultry and also game, which still forms an important part of its business. It comes from estates in Lancashire and the Lake District, where Les discovered that gamekeepers couldn't find a market for their pheasants and, instead of selling, were reduced to burying them. During the summer, fish it to the fore, but game takes precedence in the autumn.
The shrimps to be potted are shelled, cleaned, and boiled as soon as they are brought up from the shore (which is less than five minutes' drive from Les' present workshop). They are potted in butter from Garstang, which is on the other side of the bay, and lightly flavoured with spices, including mace. Local people eat them on toast generously buttered with the spicy shrimp butter; they are also very good on brown or rye bread such as Matt Jones' from Flour Power, accompanied by cherry tomatoes and rocket or watercress. Alternatively, you can serve them on pasta.
Like Herdwick mutton and Colchester native oysters, shrimps from Morecambe Bay are boarded on the Slow Food Ark of Taste.