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The Raw Prawn

June 10, 2010

My recent two-month stay in Adelaide was full of pleasant surprises. One of them was meeting John Lethlean, one of Australia’s most highly respected food journalists, currently in the employ of The Australian and who, with colleague Necia Wilden, has established the News Limited broadsheet as a leading light in mainstream food writing in Australia. I met John (read: opportunistically introduced myself to him) following a panel session at the Tasting Australia festival titled ‘There’s a Critic in my Soup’ which pitted critics against chefs in an amicable verbal stoush. At the end of the session, the floor was opened up to the audience, and John was asked what he thought about the advent of food blogging and the idea that ‘everyone can be a critic’. In his response, John raised the point that bloggers are not bound by the same codes of ethics that require mainstream journalists to disclose freebies and which underpin the understanding that reputable food reviewers pay for their own meals.

In defence of bloggers, in my usual outspoken fashion, I took the mic and argued that some bloggers do not accept freebies, and that the ones who do, on the whole, declare it. I argued further that the advent of blogging means that readers have access to an unprecedented spectrum of voices and opinions free of editorial control. After all, it is the reader’s responsibility to decide whether or not a source is trustworthy, and this is true of traditional, mainstream media as well as new media.

Essentially, we agreed on all of these points. A few weeks later, he wrote a column about it. The important thing for mine is that there is a growing recognition that food blogs can be a serious and credible source of information along with mainstream media sources, and bloggers can be recognised as serious and credible writers. What also needs to be recognised is that this new platform of communication is accompanied by an ongoing discussion about the role of ethics and transparency in achieving recognition and credibility. On the whole, Australia’s leading food bloggers aren’t just individuals, but part of a community striving towards common goals.

One needs no further proof of this than the inaugural Australian food and drink bloggers’ conference Eat. Drink. Blog. held in Melbourne earlier this year. Unfortunately I was unable to attend, and I consider myself to be on the fringe of these discussions which are being led by some formidably passionate, prolific and talented people. Ethics was one of the topics discussed however, and by all reports, the general consensus among bloggers is that it up to individual writers to decide whether they want to accept freebies, but where they do, they should disclose the fact. Hooray: common sense and decency prevail (two things which, admittedly, the interwebs doesn’t have a great reputation for)!

This brings me to the second pleasant surprise I received in Adelaide: the offer of some complimentary Crystal Bay prawns following a blog post in which I waxed lyrical about Yamba prawns. The political suddenly became personal. Full disclosure: I accepted this generous offer. I blog about food because I’m passionate about it. I don’t get paid for the time I spend researching and writing this stuff. So when an offer of a couple of kilos each of cooked and sashimi-grade green prawns comes my way, are you kidding? Bring it on! Don’t get me wrong, I will work for money too. And I’m available. Just sayin.

In recent years, the branding of regional produce has increasingly become an important marketing tool for producers. Conversely, for the consumer, branding means reliability and consistency. Whether the quality is real or perceived, it can’t be denied that as a society we love to buy the brand. Brands of fresh produce familiar from menus, food media and retail that immediately spring to mind are Glenloth free range chickens, Thirlmere poultry, David Blackmore wagyu and Macleay Valley rabbit. And when it comes to chucking a shrimp on the barbie, there are two names that are instantly recognisable: Yamba prawns and Crystal Bay prawns. Crystal Bay claims devotees from Tetsuya to Neil Perry, and Matt Moran reckons of Yamba prawns ‘if there’s a better prawn in the world, I don’t know about it.’ Impressive endorsements indeed!

This led me to the question ‘what is behind the brand?’ I started with what I know: from experience, Yamba prawns and Crystal Bay prawns are good. Indeed, if they’re good enough for Tetsuya and Matt Moran, they’re good enough for me (marketing: win). I know they’re both king prawns. I know where Yamba is, because I grew up there. Yep. That’s about it. Not much, but a starting point.

So I did a bit of research, and what I discovered were two completely different products which exemplify the diverse practices in the Australian fishing industry. Crystal Bay prawns are a product of aquaculture, farmed in far-north Queensland to meet the demand for sustainable, top quality, fresh prawns all year round. In contrast, the brand Yamba prawns is owned by the Clarence River Fishermen’s Co-operative, and denotes Eastern King prawns caught in the wild off the seaport of Yamba by old-school fishermen and fisherwomen who head out in their trawlers every morning. While I am told the supply of Yamba prawns is steady, and only vulnerable to periods of inclement weather, the number of trawlers operating off the coast of Yamba has more than halved since its heyday as the biggest operating port on the east coast of Australia.

Overfishing is increasingly being recognised as an environmental catastrophe of epic proportions which demands immediate attention and action, and prawns are no exception. Environmentally, what is the sound choice? The Australian Marine Conservation Society advises that there are no easy answers, and that each species and fishery should be judged on its own merits. Crystal Bay promotes its environmental credentials. Of Yamba prawns, I am not certain.

To be sure, the availability and reach of the Crystal Bay product eclipses the Yamba prawn, hence the opportunity to enjoy them fresh from a fishmonger in Adelaide. Now back in the motherland, I will no doubt enjoy more Yamba prawns fresh from the source. I’m glad I know more about them now.

Meanwhile, back in Adelaide, with both cooked and green Crystal Bay prawns to work with, I came up with a two-course prawnanza which I shared with my Aunt and Uncle. I started out with a twist on a retro classic, the prawn cocktail. A homage to the memory of Don Dunstan, one of my political and culinary heroes, I donned (pun not originally intended, but noted) my green safari-style jacket and matching silk scarf. For the main course, I sought the advice of my Twitter consorts for something light that wouldn’t be overwhelming after the rich cocktail. As he so often does, Stefano Manfredi helpfully came to the rescue with a recipe for a prawn and barley stew. As we all know, it’s no secret that I adore Stefano and his cooking, but to be quite honest, my first thoughts were: prawn? Stew? Pearl barley? WTF? Dear reader, what utter foolishness to question such wisdom borne of experience. The dish was a flavour and textural sensation, light and fresh, the flavours bringing out the sweetness of the prawns without overwhelming the delicate flesh, yet satisfying and warming. I’m sure that my Aunt and Uncle would agree that it was the best dish I cooked during my stay.

Which brings us, finally, to the eating!

Prawn Cocktail (based on recipe by Neil Perry in Australian Gourmet Traveller)
Serves 4

1/4 iceberg lettuce, outer leaves and core removed, finely shredded
2 lemon wedges, plus extra to serve
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
20 cooked prawns, peeled with tails intact and intestinal tracts removed
1 avocado, halved and sliced

Cocktail sauce

140ml thick, good quality egg mayonnaise
1 tbsp tomato sauce
1 tsp Worcestershire sauce
1 tsp finely grated horseradish
Pinch cayenne pepper
Dash of tabasco sauce

To make cocktail sauce, combine ingredients and season with salt and pepper to taste. To assemble cocktail, divide lettuce among four plates or vessels of your choice (the more kitsch the better – I (ab)used Martini glasses), dress with juice of two lemon wedges and olive oil, top with prawns and serve with cocktail sauce and lemon wedges.

Prawntini

Pwntini

Prawn and Barley Stew (based on recipe by Stefano Manfredi published in the Sydney Morning Herald)

1.2kg shelled medium king prawns, de-veined
4 eschalots, peeled and sliced thinly
3 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
4tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1/2 tsp smoked paprika
quarter tsp chilli powder
1 tsp fennel seed
3 banana chillies, de-seeded and halved
1 cup dry white wine
1 litre prawn stock
2 litres water
2 cups tomato “passato” (puree)
250g pearled barley
300g shelled peas
1 cup chopped parsley
salt and pepper

Prawn stock
Heads and shells from 1.2kg prawns
1 small leek, cut into 1/2 cm thick rounds
1 small carrot, peeled and cut into 2cm rounds
2 sticks celery
1 cup tomato puree
3 garlic cloves, peeled and left whole

Place barley in a sieve and wash quickly under running water to remove dust or dirt. Heat olive oil in a large pot and gently fry eschalots, garlic, paprika, chilli powder and fennel for a minute. Add wine, turn up heat and boil until there is almost no liquid left. Add prawn stock and passato, banana chillies and a litre of water. Bring to boil and add barley. Simmer for 15 minutes then add peas. Simmer for 15 minutes more then add prawns. Cook for 5 minutes then add parsley. Season with salt and pepper to taste and stir well. Serve hot.

Serves 8

Note: Leftover stew can be excellent a day or two after being made though the barley will have absorbed all the liquid. Reheat by adding a cup of water and a quarter cup of tomato puree and gently bringing to the boil. More prawns or other seafood can be added to make a substantial “leftovers” meal.

Prawn stock

Bring a pot of water to the boil and blanch the prawn shells and heads for 20-30 seconds. Drain and put the prawn shells into a stockpot with the leek, carrot, celery, tomato and garlic. Cover with cold water and bring to the boil. Turn down the heat and simmer for 1 hour, skimming any scum from the surface. Strain and it is ready to use.

Makes about 2 litres

Prawn and barley stew

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. June 10, 2010 23:56

    Another stellar post – keep up the good work – have to say though the Spencer Gulf Wild King would have to stake a place in the “best and most sustainable” stakes.

  2. June 11, 2010 00:27

    Good on you for taking the mic. I’d be curious to read John’s column on the topic – is it online? Disclosure is vital and I do think that the public are now seeking a broader spectrum of information sources and opinions. I also don’t underestimate the public’s intelligence nor their ability to guage credibility and reliability when it comes to (food) blogs.

  3. June 11, 2010 01:26

    Those recipes looks amazing. Thanks for sharing.

  4. June 11, 2010 09:31

    I’ve yet to try Yamba prawns. I’m all for regional branding of foods. Particularly with a product like prawns competing with cheaper imports. I’ve given up eating prawns in restaurants as I’m sure they serve the imported ones. One good thing about living here, is being able to buy prawns off the boats when they come in each morning.

    Disclosure – yes, and I do. In the US ,where it is compulsory, I’ve noticed a few blogs hide their disclosure on another page. It should be included within the post. But just like food labeling in Australia, people find a way around rules.

    Good post Felix….and the dishes look delicious.

  5. Rebecca permalink
    June 11, 2010 10:03

    Nice one Electricity!

  6. June 11, 2010 10:12

    You saucy minx – you make prawns look sexy, love the green jacket! I loathe the creepy little things so will refrain from comment on the recipes, which I’m sure were delicious. Beautifully writte as usual

  7. June 11, 2010 10:54

    Ah I love a good prawn cocktail – loved this post, super interesting!

  8. June 11, 2010 16:52

    Hi Felicity, the Prawn and Barley Stew looks like it would be an awesome winter meal, thanks for the recipe! No doubt I will be using some tasty Yamba prawns in this bad boy!

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