“The great British skill of potting meat and fish seems to have been for the most part forgotten by most of today’s chefs. Well made potted foods are national dishes of which we should be justly proud.”

Fine English Cookery (1973) Michael Smith

Potted fish, originally intended as a simple method of preservation long before the advent of refrigeration, now has a tendency to summon memories of riverside picnics from Wind in the Willows rather than contemporary English cuisine.

I think their cultural and commercial downfall was hastened by a leading brand of sandwich pastes rendering potted shrimps and fish an almost forgotten treat – all in the clamber for earlier makeover-madness. I have distant memories of these tasteless fish pastes, all seemingly conforming to a distinctive grey gloop and camouflaged in tiny medicinal jars ambitiously cast with classical Doric fluting, their subsequent sandwiches forever blighting afternoon teas provided by insistent aunts.

Somehow when we return from Mediterranean holidays, heads full of culinary exotica and memories of Rillettes, Terrines, Confits or Paté du Maison, we often overlook our own history of potted meats, cheese and fish, all borne of a similarly practical cooking style.
In the case of those tiny sweet shrimps, famously associated with Morecambe Bay or the Wash in East Anglia, commercially fished as far back as the 16th century, their leap for eternity begins with that cap of clarified butter; beneath which they are safely preserved.

Made days in advance, if necessary, to provide solitary lunches or well attended dinner parties, the assembly of the dish (for it is hardly cooking) is a breeze.

Potted Shrimp from Fish – Recipes from a Busy Island (2005) Sara Paston-Williams

450 g freshly cooked (or frozen) peeled brown shrimps
175 g best quality unsalted butter
Pinch of cayenne
Scant teaspoon of ground mace
Generous pinch of freshly ground nutmeg
Freshly ground black pepper
50 g clarified butter

Butter 4 small ramekins
Melt the unsalted butter in a pan with the spices
Remove from the heat and add the shrimps
Turn them over in the butter taking care not to break them up
Taste for salt and add a little if necessary
Turn into the ramekins and leave to set
Melt the clarified butter and spoon over enough to cover the surface of each pot and seal the contents
Chill in the fridge overnight before serving

Wine thoughts

I have written elsewhere as to the merits of Menetou-Salon Blanc over its adjoining hilltop neighbor – Sancerre. Both of course use Sauvignon Blanc, but whereas the mighty Sancerre sends forth around half a dozen times as much wine as Menetou-Salon, it sometimes feels as though it charges as much for its ongoing fame as for its erratic wines. Mentou-Salon initially offers a mineral bouquet followed by a caressingly acidic palate that will do much to temper the creaminess of the butter – all quickly followed by a welcome raft of silky, crystallised lemon and quince. No need for a slice of lemon here?