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Christmas is ... prawns

"When it comes to summer entertaining in Australia there aren't many words that scream 'celebration' more than prawns." Coles Magazine

Back in 1984 Paul Hogan enticed the Americans to visit Australia by inviting them to 'throw another shrimp on the barbie'. And by shrimp, of course, he meant a prawn. It was one of the most successful Tourism Australia ads ever.

It actually wasn't about Christmas, it was really about summer but Christmas is the beginning of summer entertaining here. The first big bash - with the leftovers - if there are any - being taken to the beach or the Boxing Day Test Match. Paul Hogan is now an old man, but the message is the same - today from Curtis Stone declaring "It just wouldn't be an Aussie Christmas without them on the table" in his introduction to the short video I have linked to here which shows the basics of dealing with prawns. And we have become so Australian that prawns will be on our Christmas table too.

I don't think prawns - or lobster or even shrimps have ever been a Christmas thing in England but I do remember eating shrimps every now and then, most likely at my grandmother's house, because she lived in Portsmouth on the south coast. We bought them by the pint from a street seller I seem to remember - he would scoop them out in a pint sized enamel sort of cup. I think we would eat them in a sandwich, although I'm not too sure about that. They were definitely a treat however. Prawns were unheard of.

I loved them and still do, but alas I married a man who is repulsed by them. He says it's the beady eyes, and you can sort of see the point although that doesn't explain shelled and cooked prawns, He is not alone of course:

"Few foods seem to polarise people like prawns. To some, they’re a genuine delicacy. To others, they’re a step too close to the world of insect consumption." Stuart Heritage

So I make do with eating them when we dine out, which also alas is not very often. The speciality of our local fine diner Mercers is Malaysian dancing prawns. We customers will not let them remove them from the menu. They are sublime, but not happening for our anniversary this year - much too hard with only one functioning hand.

You can cook prawns in a myriad of ways from a simple barbecue - where the sauce is the thing to Ixta Belfrage's Prawn lasagne with habanero oil, as shown below. Lots of people like Rafqa Touma of the Australian Guardian compile lists of their best, so if you want ideas you don't have to look far.

However with prawns it's really about big business and issues isn't it?

For here in Australia it is indeed big business because prawns are the second most popular seafood after tinned tuna. Two thirds of them or 65% are imported - mostly from Vietnam, China, Thailand and other South-East Asian countries. And yes, a lot of those are Dodgy prawns as Greenpeace will succintly and clearly tell you in their report. This is the 'extreme' anti view - although I would have to say it is relatively even-handed. You name an issue and it will probably apply - environmental destruction and pollution; poor working conditions, even slave labour and all its associated issues; waste; overfishing; dodgy finance and corruption; poor pest control ... You name it and it will apply.

Of course there are also some responsible South-East Asian fisheries - and Greenpeace does point this out. However unless they have an official accreditation on their packaging you really wouldn't know. For example I&J - an originally Australian company, now owned by Simplot, who also own Bird's Eye (and others), have a few pages of prawn recipes in the latet Coles Magazine, which makes a big thing about sustainability. Yet their prawns come from Vietnam and China. Good or bad? We do not know. There were comments elsewhere as well about the difficulty of knowing the source, which I think is rather overstated. At least with respect to the supermarkets because there is always a country of origin even if it is in tiny print.

Australia is different. Things are much more highly regulated and also managed. There are two sources - wild caught and farmed.

Australian Wild Prawns is, I think, an association kind of thing promoting Australian wild caught prawns. It's a beautiful site and is at the opposite end of the spectrum to Greenpeace. Of course.

This month the Coles Magazine has a couple of pages on one of their suppliers of wild-caught prawns - Austral Fisheries - an MSC certified company. and tucked in the corner is a statement:

"Coles is the only supermarket in Australia to offer MSC certified seafood at all its deli counters, demonstrating its commitment to providing responsibly sourced seafood."

Which may be true - but not all the seafood in the deli and certainly not elsewhere in the store. I should check Woollies to see if it is true. Still in spite of the hidden truths it does at least show that they need to be seen to be doing the right thing and it probably means they are moving in the right direction. The problem is, of course, that the good stuff is more expensive and the poor can't afford it. As always.

The article reads, of course, as if Austral Fisheries is a successful but ordinary people kind if company and focusses on some of the fishermen. It is in fact a very large company - half owned by the Kailis family who began the business and half by a Japanese company. It is the 20th largest agribusiness in Australia and owns over 70% of the total quota of Patagonian toothfish and Mackerel icefish in Australian waters. But yes they do put a lot of emphasis on sustainability.

What about Aquaculture? Here there is also an umbrella organisation the Australian Prawn Farmers Association and in this case the largest operator is Seafarms of the Northern Territory and WA. Their current farms are pretty massive and their website all homely, yet impressive. They also have a massive, project costing billions to expand in WA which has had a pretty chequered history - big plans, huge pullback, receivership and now a new start back to the initial premise I think. It's the future - so I wish them luck - for they too seem to be at least conscious of all the ethical and environmental issues.

My younger son has forbidden all seafood in his house because of all the issues involved. I think this is somewhat extreme because of the health benefits, not to mention the taste. Just make sure you check where they come from. Look for that blue tick. He is also suspicious of that.

I am not supplying our Christmas prawns, although I have complete faith that my supplier will be sourcing the best.

"It may be worth rembering that despite the fact that they are rich the are hardly filling" says Nigel Slater but that's OK because it's only the starter in this house - not the main event as it is in so many Ozzie homes at Christmas.

Christmas, prawns, summer.


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