I’M not sure which chef first took prawn cocktail out of a cocktail glass and onto a plate but he deserves to have his liver gently sautéed as punishment. You eat first with your eyes and no matter how you dress it up, once you give the glass the old heave-ho you’re left with a pink splodge.
I still remember the giant prawn cocktails served up some years ago at the Yorkshire Bridge Inn at Ladybower. They were famous for it. Later it was reborn as the hipsterish crayfish with avocado.
Restaurant kitchens are constantly reinventing. I’m all for that. It’s when a chef offers a ‘deconstructed dish’ of a classic that I reach for my coat. Some dishes you just don’t mess with and this is one.
Now a slight smirk might be starting to form on your face as you read this. After all, isn’t prawn cocktail supposed to be retro, a hark back to the Sixties and Fanny Cradock, Berni Inns, Abigail’s Party and cheese on a stick? And wasn’t there a cookery book called The Prawn Cocktail Years to celebrate it in an ironical way? There was, by Simon Hopkinson and Lyndsey Bareham.
It may be a girlie starter but I have quite a soft spot for the prawn cocktail and I’m in good company. So has Herman Blumenthal. But, for me, it’s going too far to add avocado, as he does, which should stick to being guacamole. For me it’s just prawns, crispy lettuce, Marie Rose sauce and a cherry tomato plus a good dusting of paprika.
So who is guilty of duffing up the prawn cocktail? Once a chef does something new, the rest follow like lemmings. Gary Rhodes? He was a great deconstructionist. But it could be someone even more famous. A chef I respect gave me a clue when I ordered prawn cocktail, got a splodge on a plate and sent a pained word back to the kitchen asking why they’d run out of glasses.
The waiter came back with the message: “Chef says if it’s good enough for Gordon Ramsay it’s good enough for him.” Well expletive deleted Mr Ramsay, you’re not the one eating my prawn cocktail.
There’s a bit of a mystery about where it originated. Probably America, where they call prawns shrimps, but I don’t buy the story that a Californian Gold Rush miner dunked his oysters in a drained whisky glass with Tabasco and ketchup and called it an oyster cocktail. From oysters to prawns (or shrimps) was but a short step. Too pat, too neat.
There may be something in the suggestion that restaurants during Prohibition years used up their redundant wine and cocktail glasses as dishes for prawn cocktail.
Over here, Berni Inns (the forerunners of Beefeater) did not invent the dish but certainly popularised it. Fanny Cradock was not the inventor, either, although she memorably described a poor one as a ‘sordid little offering . . . a tired prawn drooping disconsolately over the edge of the glass like a debutante at the end of her first ball.’
Americans had bathed their prawns in a mix of horseradish, tomato ketchup and chilli sauce. We were more restrained but the posh sounding Marie Rose sauce was nothing more that tomato sauce and mayonnaise, albeit with a squeeze of lemon (fellow blogger and Masterchef contender Craig Harris used lime when he ran and cheffed at The Peaks at Castleton} and a shake of Tabasco.
These days it is getting harder and harder to find a prawn cocktail in a wine glass. At the otherwise classy and fishy Wensleydale Heifer it arrived looking like it had been turfed out of its container by a lobster in a strop. It was no better at the fishily famous Magpie café in Whitby: a mess on a plate.
I once had one artistically laid out on a slate. It was like Eric Morecambe’s Grieg’s Piano Concerto: all the right ingredients but not in the right order. So these days I ask first: Is it in a glass? If not, I’ll pass.