All photos/art by Heath Robbins
They begin their chilly journey as year-old boy shrimp, trekking from inshore waters out into the cold Atlantic. There they spend a couple of years at sea; then, after spawning, they flip a biological switch and become girl shrimp. They mature for a year and then, carrying their fertilized eggs, begin their fall migration back to inshore waters, where their young will hatch over the winter and early spring. The endurance of these intrepid travelers, just a few inches long, is amazing in itself (as is their evolutionary dance), of course, but what really draws the attention of New England seafood fanatics is their precious flavor: lightly sweet and nutty, with a distinctive straight-from-the-water brininess.
The first of these little gals–Pandalus borealis, the Northern shrimp–show up here as early as the December holidays and sometimes linger into early May, but traditionally the best times to sample them are January and February. If you live in coastal Maine or are visiting those rugged shores, you’ll know when they’ve arrived: All along Route 1 from Wiscasset north, you’ll see vans and pickups selling day-boat shrimp. (They’re available in most markets, too.)
In the 1970s, the New England shrimp fishery all but collapsed, but new federal and state regulations helped stabilize the population, and by all accounts, it’s once again back in strong numbers. The lion’s share of the commercial catch is hauled from the southwestern Gulf of Maine, with the balance divided among Canada’s Maritime provinces and the Massachusetts coast.
Because these shrimp are so very wee, they cook in seconds–literally. A simple and delicious way to enjoy them is a quick one-minute boil (head and shell on, if you please). Peel and eat them straightaway as is, or dip them in a simple sauce for extra flavor. Or for a deep-fried, golden-battered treat, try our shrimp-puffs recipe, shown here.