Prawn cocktail

Prawn cocktail and cockles

We never cook with prawns, shrimps, crabs or lobsters in the classroom.  These crustaceans are just too expensive for everyday food, and remain a treat for those who can afford to eat out. Cockles, winkles and whelks are popular delicacies in east London, sold on the fish stalls outside busy pubs and sprinkled liberally with brown vinegar squirted from a rather grubby white plastic bottle. The chewy, muscley flesh of these weird sea creatures is peppered with crunchy sand and small stones, and more than I can bear. 

Mark, my boyfriend, or ex boyfriend depending on the weather was an Essex boy, who worked during his summer holidays on the cockle boats that go out into the Thames estuary dredging the shellfish from the mud. He had another exotic sounding job catching the boat from the end of Southend pier, travelling along the coast to Paglesham to harvest oysters from the rows of oyster beds along the coastline. These delicacies were mainly shipped to London but there was a thriving local trade from an oyster stall that he ran from outside the Kursaal Amusement Park on Southend seafront. Day trippers went for their ride on the big dipper and then tucked into a half dozen shucked oysters that he opened with his special knife. ‘A really cheap treat’ he told me, ‘but there were times when I had to wash off the blood when I cut my hand opening the shells.’ He sometimes got into fights with the chaps on the jam doughnut stall next door – they aimed their squirty jam and doughnut dough at him and he retaliated with oyster shells and mucky fish water. 

When we moved to London we’d sometimes travel down to meet his family outside The Crooked Billet pub in Old Leigh and sit at the sea edge with a pint of beer, eating tiny plates of cockles from the bustling fish stalls with tables overlooking the estuary. Fond memories.

Thankfully we don’t need to know about shellfish for the EXAM, and Cookery for Schools shares my dislike.

‘The flesh of shellfish is considerably less digestible than that of white and oily fish, and is not universally popular – e.g. crabs, lobsters, prawns, mussels, winkles, etc.’

This author needs to do better research when this book is republished – visit Old Leigh cockle sheds and fish stalls on a busy weekend! Gourmet food lovers of freshly cooked lobster and crabs would be very surprised to know that these delicacies are universally unpopular! I need to write my own cookery textbook!

Prawn cocktail is a favourite starter dish of the seventies and in Berni Inns where it’s served in a large wine glass on a bed of chopped lettuce, with an unshelled prawn dangling over the rim. The wine glass comes on a saucer with a frilly doyley with quarters of brown bread and butter, crusts removed. It’s the doyley that annoys me.  Don’t Berni Inns know the first rule of doyley use?  Plain for savoury, frilly for sweet dishes!

In Wicksteed Park where I’d worked as a waitress, prawn cocktail is a customer favourite and the chef had huge glass jars of pink Heinz Marie Rose sauce that he’d dollop into the prawn cocktail mixture.  Its ingredients are supposedly made from salad cream and tomato ketchup, which we had to mix up for him when the jar ran out.

My favourite description of prawn cocktail comes from H. E. Bates,  a Northamptonshire author who wrote his famous books, The Darling Buds of May about Pop Larkin and his family. In his story Pop and Ma Larkin visit their neighbour’s house for dinner and Pop thinks everything looks trés snob. The meal starts with prawn cocktail and this is a treasured paragraph.

‘Pop finds himself staring down at a small green glass dish in which reposed a concoction consisting of five prawns, a spoonful of soapy pink sauce and a sixth prawn hanging over the edge of the glass as if searching for any of its mates that might have fallen overboard. You could have eaten the lot, Pop thought, with two digs of an egg-spoon.’

My grandfather once told me that he taught Herbert Bates in his science lessons at Kettering Grammar School in the nineteen twenties.  I was stunned, and desperate to ask more questions.  But by this time my grandfather was in the twilight zone and found grandchildren irritating. H.E. Bates’s books depict the Northamptonshire countryside where I grew up, and his prawn cocktail story will stay with me forever. I’d love to know what my grandfather taught him.

Cookery for Schools offers no homework questions on crustaceans or shellfish so I scratch a my own chalky words on the black roller board.

“Visit your local cockle stall and find out where they get their shellfish from. Make a list of all the fish, shellfish and crustaceans that they sell.’

If they are lucky, I might tell them my story about Mark and his cockles and oysters next week.


I’m surprised we didn’t get a dose of Cockney rhyming slang after this lesson.

‘Do you know what cockles means?’

Cock and hen = ten – ‘That’ll cost ya a cockle darling! £10

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Filed under 1970 cookery recipes

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