Grey shrimp or ‘grijze garnalen’ are a delicacy in Belgium! Besides the well known delicacies of chocolate, beer, and fries these tiny shrimps are exquisite and almost exclusive to the Belgian market. We were lucky enough to see working shrimp fisherman on horseback on a sunny day this summer and it really is impressive to see! It is well worthwhile a detour to the Belgian coast on your next trip.
Traditional shrimp fishing
It is unique in Europe, in the small village of Oostduinkerke, for visitors to see demonstrations of the traditional shrimp fishing on horseback. Observing this process with the horses during low tide is special, and you can even assist at the cooking demonstrations regularly held straight after the shrimps are caught. There is also the possibility to buy freshly caught shrimp too.
Since December 2013, traditional shrimp fishing has been added by UNESCO to the list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. This is because the activity respects the marine environment as well as the cultural heritage. Only a dozen fishermen still work as a community and are fully involved in keeping this tradition alive.
Shrimp fishing on horseback
Belgian Brabant draft horses, each weighing around 1000 kg are famous for their strength and trained for the job by the fishermen. The fishermen are dressed in tall rubber boots with wetsuits as the seawater at the Belgian coast is pretty cold even during the warmest season.
The shrimp fishing starts one hour before low tide. The sea at Oostduinkerke beach with its shallow waters has no obstacles and has the perfect characteristics to help maintain the traditional grey shrimp fishing.
The horses walk into the sea until breast-deep in the water. They drag funnel shaped fishing nets, held open by two heavy wooden boards or an aluminium plate, while slowly moving forward parallel to the coast line. The heavy boards or plate create shocks causing the shrimp to jump up and enter the net. The horses return to shore every half-hour to take a rest from trawling while the fishermen empty the nets on the beach, sift the catch, and store the shrimp in wicker baskets hanging at the horses’ sides. Crabs and small fish are thrown back into the sea or eaten by the scavenging seagulls that fly around when fishing is ongoing.
Shrimp fishermen and women on foot
Shrimp can be caught on foot too, but don’t underestimate the work as this is a serious workout. Men and women are walking alongside the shore in chest-high water and while men drag (slepen) the nets behind them, women push (steken) huge nets in front of them. The principle is the same as with horses and on the day we went to see them, nine fishermen (slepers) caught a whopping 23.5 kg in one hour.
Where to find traditional shrimp fishing
Fishermen go anytime of the year if the weather allows, but the best time is during the warmer months from April to October when most productive fishing happens and specific demonstration dates are published to the public.
Head to the Astridplein in Oostduinkerke, a sub-community of Koksijde. Each year a calendar with the exact dates and fishing times is published on visitor.koksijde.be
- Fishing times with horses are available at garnaalvissers te paard
- Fishing times for men who drag nets at deslepers.be
- Fishing times for women pushing nets at de stienestekers
How to prepare grey shrimp?
These delicious treasures of the North Sea are best eaten naturally. This means to cooking them in very salty water, just like sea water. Add 40gr of salt per 1 litre of water to achieve ‘sea water’. They are less than an inch long when peeled, are grey when raw, and have a greyish-pink colour when cooked. The taste is slightly sweet and more pronounced in flavour than traditional larger, pink shrimp.
You can buy them unpeeled at affordable prices between 14 to 20€, depending on the location. Once peeled the price elevates and at the time of writing this article one kilo of peeled grey shrimp costs 68€!! No wonder it is a delicacy.
After the fishing and cooking demonstrations, we were able to buy some of the shrimp. We decided to buy a bottle of wine and eat them right on the beach!
Some typical dishes are
- Tomate crevettes (tomaat garnaal) or simply raw tomatoes stuffed with the peeled shrimps. Sometimes a light mayonnaise dressing is added.
- Croquette de crevettes grises (garnaal kroketten) are crispy croquettes made with a dense or liquid shrimp filling.
- Salade de crevettes (garnaal salade) is a mixture of grey shrimp with mayonnaise which is used on toast as finger food and many Belgians also serve it on bread for dinner.