When I was a kid, a kilo of school prawns and some mayonnaise was considered fast food for a family. With perhaps some white bread to wrap them in. McDonalds also came on the scene. It’s a terrible shame which one the world has managed to leave the most room for. Commercially, a lot of wild prawn fisheries are in a bad way, in terms of their numbers, bycatch impact, toxin uptake and/or other aspects of their sustainability. The prawn farmers are also a mixed bunch; some working towards some pretty sustainable food production, and others having a shameful toll by digging up wetlands, pillaging the sea for the feed inputs and discharging harmful effluents (Asian imports tend to rate the worst on these scores for prawns on sale in Australia). All in all, it is often very hard to know what you are buying. So, until some decent labelling laws come in, I pretty much don’t buy prawns at all.
This is where one the great joys of foraging means the most – there is no better way of knowing where your seafood comes from than getting right into the water and going after it yourself. I have been longing to try my hand at prawning for quite a while now, but I just wasn’t sure of how or where to give it a go. Some friends who knew this just so happened to come from a Central / Mid-north Coast family who take their prawning seriously. A casual invite to their last session of the season was leapt upon within seconds.
“What do I bring? Torches, a scoop net?” I asked, “You name it, I’ll get it”. “A pair of sandshoes” was the answer. A three hour drive to Bulahdelah to their family seat, a laid-back lunch of wonderful homegrown abundance and then off to the secret spot. I don’t actually know how guarded people are about their prawning spots, because the prawns don’t live there – they are just passing through on their way to the sea to breed. Nonetheless, having been afforded the dignity of not being blindfolded for the journey, I will leave locations out of it.
The prawn net itself is a pretty impressive piece of kit. Six metres of 30mm aperture net feeding into a tail end where, all going well, the prawns accumulate. There are floats along the top rope, weights along the bottom and 1.7 metres of net between them. It is all held square by two sturdy poles that must be dragged through the water by hand. Normally people hang on to ropes to drag it, although we had the benefit of an ingenious homemade custom rig with harnesses. The care and detail of these gave an early indication that I was under some pretty expert tutoring.
With the calculations about tide, moon, time and place made long before with tide charts and a hefty store of experience, and with the biggest and best set-up possible under NSW rules, it seemed that the hardest bits had been done. From there, it was just a walk through the water with another bloke five metres away doing the same. Simple. Until you start thinking about being belly deep in water in which to my mind there ought to be stingrays to tread on and bull sharks to be paranoid about. With phosphorescence in the water, your legs glow a little as they move, and so does the wake of fish that might swerve in front of you. Things start getting a little creepy for a bit until rationality reclaims its ground. The guys who have been doing it for decades had no concerns, so that did for me.
It turns out that the biggest danger is in fact a 5cm fish that looks not much more menacing than an aquarium goldfish – the fortescue (Centropogon australis), with spines that are said to give an agonising sting. And the danger isn’t even really in the water (because of the sandshoes), but sorting the catch when comfortably on dry land. Or perhaps that is the second biggest danger, behind missing out on being altogether chuffed with the realisation that you are out there getting amongst it on a beautiful starry night in paradise.
Successful prawning can go a long time into the night. If another pass with the net meant another kilo or two of prawns, you would take it. And another, until fatigue set in. And then the processing rules are pretty firm – you catch ‘em, you cook ‘em, that night. Unfortunately, we were safely in bed around midnight. This meant something under two kilos put away; where being up until 3am with twenty kilos would obviously have been preferred. However, it was enough at least for one glorious feed the next day and a few extra snacks.
With prawns, like a lot of seafood delicacies (abalone, crab, whitebait), simple is best. Just a little salt, fat (like butter) and tang (lemon) – or all three in the form of mayonnaise. If accompanied by anything else, just the simplest white bread fits the bill. Don’t let fine food snobbery lure you into some dark sourdough rye and angel-sweat-infused aioli which ends in you not tasting the catch. Wine and a nap would have topped it off to perfection. But it was water and a three hour drive back to the city instead; all the while planning on getting back out there when the season, sunset, tide and moon next align. Saturday 5th December is looking good for me – I can hardly wait.