What are "Nordseegarnelen?"
One of the cultural icons of the German coast, the brown shrimp, or Crangon crangon is in high demand as a German food specialty. Ten thousand metric tons (One metric ton equals 1000 kilograms or 2200 pounds) were caught in German waters in 2005. The catch has been decreasing steadily since the 1950s, due to many things, including overfishing and increased equipment and operating costs.
The words "Nordseekrabben" or "Nordseegarnelen," are used interchangeably, to mean a small, swimming decapods, known as brown or common shrimp which lives in the mudflats around the North Sea, the Baltic Sea as well as in the Mediterranean and Black Seas. They grow to 1.2 to 2 inches long.
History of German Brown Shrimp
For many centuries, brown shrimp were considered poor people's food. They were caught with nets, first thrown, then stretched on a frame and attached to a pole and dragged through the shallow water and tidal channels on foot. Women and children primarily did this work to supplement their other food sources. (source). (Video and reenactment with Vizsla.)
By the 1600s, shrimp fishing became an income source, but still played a secondary role compared to other fishery activities, such as the herring catch. By the end of the 1800s, shrimping increased, better harbors and motorized boats allowing for higher sales. "Baumkurre" nets (bottom trawling nets) from Holland were adopted, which doubled the size of the catch per boat. Two nets could be used at a time, one port and one starboard. The practice continues today.
In Germany, the brown shrimp is fished off of East Frisian islands (Borkum, Juist, Norderney, Baltrum, Langeoog, Spiekeroog and Wangerooge), North Frisian islands (Sylt , Föhr, Amrum, Pellworm and Nordstrand) and from the coastal towns such as Büsum and Cuxhafen, with a total of 253 boats in 2010. These are also prime tourist areas with several National Parks, camping, windsurfing and sailing.
The best shrimp are caught in the fall, when the shrimp have had enough to eat. Due to deep freeze methods, however, peeled shrimp are available all year long.
Shrimp are fished according to the tides, since many harbors are not accessible during low tide. Bottom trawlers are used, which carry sack-like nets held open at the front. These are dragged across the sea floor to catch shrimp, flounder or other fish, depending on the area and net size. See video of trawler and catch here - turn sound to low.
The shrimp are pulled aboard, cleaned of sand and debris and cooked in salt water immediately, then cooled until they reach the harbor. On land, they are sorted by size on a conveyer with various-sized openings. As they move along, they are sprayed with a mixture of salt, benzoic acid and citric acid, to help preserve them. They are cooled until sold or peeled.
Peeling Brown Shrimp
Peeling (the verb in German is "pulen") takes place in foreign countries, as it is too expensive to shell them in Germany. This has been a running controversy for decades, since a local product is shipped (often to Morocco), peeled, frozen, then shipped back for the inland market. Critics complain that the environmental costs are not calculated into the price of the shrimp and that globalization, which keeps the product inexpensive, hurts the German job market.
Several decades ago, peeling shrimp was considered a cottage industry and coastal people regularly supplemented their incomes with peeling, but food hygiene regulations have moved it out of the home. Still, humans are needed to peel the shrimp, as most machines have failed due to the small size of the shrimp. There are several machines in Büsum and Cuxhafen but they peel a comparatively small amount of shrimp per year.
This machine, for instance (video, starts at 3 minutes, 10 seconds), aligns the shrimp, which is straightened and run under an adjustable blade. Air is then blown into the slit made on the shell, which lifts and separates the meat. The shell falls away onto a separate conveyer and the meat is ready to pack. Mr. Kocker, the inventor, explains that peeling was never the problem with the machine, getting the shrimp into the proper position to be peeled was.
How to Peel "Nordseekrabben" or Brown Shrimp by Hand
Hold the shrimp by the head with index finger and thumb of the left hand (for right-handers) and by the back with the same index finger and thumb of the right hand. Twist slightly, while pulling back. This cracks the shell behind the head and loosens the meat. Then you should be able to pull the back away and finish breaking off the head, which is discarded along with the shell. (pictures here)
The real trick is to be gentle enough to not damage the tender meat, while being forceful enough to be quick. From three kilograms of shrimp, expect about one kilogram of meat.
Whether peeled or whole, brown shrimp are sold to the consumer pre-cooked. Because of their small size, they are used to stuff vegetables, in omelets, as a soup garnish and in shrimp salads. A mixture of mayonnaise or yogurt and lemon, dill and catsup is a good base to showcase the sweet meat.
They are also served in rolls at kiosks on the coast. A dressing mixture (mayonnaise, dill, lemon, pinch of sugar and garlic or onion) is placed on a Kaiser roll or a hard, German roll with a mound of shrimp and sold. (picture here and recipe here)