When it comes to the world of food in British Columbia, there are certain times of year when foodies around the province get excited, very excited. For some it’s the beginning of halibut season, for others it’s asparagus and strawberry season. Yes, I get excited about all of those products, but right now I’m excited about the just-opened spot prawn season, and for good reason.
The season for BC Spot Prawns runs typically through May and June. If you look on the shell of these beasties you will see two large white spots. While they are called spot prawns, it is more scientifically accurate to call it a shrimp, but it is the largest commercially harvested shrimp on the West Coast, which is probably why it is called a prawn, since we typically associate larger size with the word prawn, don’t ask me why!
I really didn’t know much about spot prawns until a few years ago. It’s another one of those BC seafood species that for a long time hasn’t been appreciated by us, and to this day, 90 percent of the harvest is shipped to Japan. But some industrious chefs and spot prawn fishers have set out to change that, and there are two very successful spot prawn festivals on the coast, one in Vancouver and one on Vancouver Island in Cowichan Bay. I was in Cowichan Bay a couple of weeks ago for the festival, and it was quite the event, despite the poor weather. On hand were the Spot Prawn Festival Princess, an incredible Captain Jack Sparrow look-alike, I swear Johnny Depp had come to Cow Bay.
The arrival of the prawns was welcomed by a pipe and drum band, and some of the first batches sold out very quickly. In the middle of all the organized chaos was Gregg Best of Cowichan Bay Seafood, one of the organizers of the festival, and someone who has been fishing these spot prawns on the coast for years. He was ecstatic that so many people turned up in the rain to line up for spot prawns. He couldn’t see any reason why so many spot prawns were getting exported when we could be enjoying them here, and he thought a festival celebrating them would be a great way to increase interest, and he’s right. The third annual Cowichan Bay Spot Prawn Festival was another hit.
It’s great to be able to buy prawns right off the boat when we are used to getting mostly frozen shrimp or prawns, or previously frozen stuff. But when you are buying fresh prawns at a fish shop or grocery store, you do have to be careful that you’re getting the best possible product.
In May 2011 in Cowichan Bay, fresh prawns, head on, were selling for $8.50 a pound. In Vancouver, $12 a pound. Find yourself a fish shop that you can trust, someone who has a supply of prawns coming in daily this time of year. Ideally the prawns are still wriggling when you buy them, but if they’re not, one of the most important things to watch for if the heads are turning black, right where the head stops and the tail starts. When a spot prawn dies, the guts, which are basically in its head, start producing an enzyme that turns them black, and also starts turning that juicy, sweet flesh into mush. So, no black heads! If you are buying them live with the heads on and don’t want to cook them right away, you should rip the heads off and then get them into the fridge with a damp cloth. Don’t put them in water; that will also make them mushy.
Along with Gregg Best, the artisan prawner, a whole bunch of chefs, organized by Bill Jones of Deerholme Farm, were on hand at the festival doing cooking demonstrations. Lucky onlookers enjoyed spot prawn gyoza, spot prawn and morel ravioli, terrine of spot prawn and goat cheese and more. You can find all of those recipes as a pdf file right here.