If there is one dish that defines the trajectory of British food, then it is the prawn cocktail. Attributed to Fanny Cradock in the 1960s (perhaps lazily, as some say it has its genesis in the food preferences of a 19th Century Californian mine worker), prawn cocktail enjoyed a brief period as a beacon of high living, ‘going out’ and ‘having friends over.’ The key to the success of the prawn cocktail is that it tastes very nice, but is also stupefyingly easy to make.
And therein lay its doom.
Once you have something this good that can be made in advance, and whipped up to serve in seconds, good restaurants will get hold of it … and then the less good restaurants. From there, it will trickle down and find itself in the hands of pub chefs who do not give a shit about what their customers are eating. This is where we end up with tiny, tasteless frozen prawns, lank lettuce, and watery sauces lacking in seasoning. This is where British food gets its bad rap from, and yet it is the same chefs to complain today about lack of footfall across their thresholds and onto their sticky, red-patterned carpets.
But, this is a recoverable situation. If cooks take the time to use fresh, fat prawns, take care over the crispest of salads, and make a sauce with a degree of attention, then prawn cocktail remains one of the greatest starters of all time.
There are any number of adapted and up-scaled versions of prawn cocktail, so it makes sense to go back to something we all recognise and rebuild from there. The Cradock recipe has been posted online, and uses cream and a complicated lemon basket. Simon Hopkinson and Lindsay Bareham save the day in The Prawn Cocktail Years with the original restaurant classic that we should all be making this weekend.
- Heart of 1 gem lettuce, shredded
- White part of 1 spring onion, chopped
- 1–2 tbsp cucumber, deseeded and chopped
- 6 tbsp Marie Rose sauce made by combining 4:1 mayo:ketchup, and then small amounts of Tabasco, brandy and lemon juice to taste
- 200g good-sized cooked, shell-on prawns, peeled (reserve 2 with the shells to garnish if liked)
- 2 slices of lemon
- Sprinkle of paprika
Combine the salad ingredients and place in a glass.
Divide the prawns between the glasses, and spoon over the sauce.
Sprinkle over with a light dusting of paprika, and garnish with the lemon and the reserved prawns.