Belgium (Brussels Morning Newspaper) “Paardevissers van Oostduinkerke.” It is a Flemish tongue twister to be sure, especially for those of us who are native English speakers. While it may be hard to pronounce, but its literal meaning is straightforward.
Paardevissers translates to “horse-fishermen” in Dutch while Oostduinkerke (literally East Dunkirk) is a small municipality on Belgium’s northwest coastline. Paardevissers van Oostduinkerke” or the “The horse-fishermen of Oostduinkerke”, has become the moniker used to describe an enduring and uniquely Belgian tradition.
Centuries ago, the custom of fishing for shrimp on horseback was practiced extensively along the North Sea from France, to Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Germany, and southern England. These North Sea coastal areas have the right environmental characteristics to pursue this unique tradition. The shallow waters, sandy soil, the eternally changing ebb and flow of the tides, and the turbidity of the waters offer a thriving natural habitat for the prized gray shrimp (Crangon).
The traditionally yellow-clad fishermen (and women), atop their legendary trained Belgian draft horses, drag nets that are hooked along either side of their wooden saddles.
Belgian draft horses originate from the Brabant region of modern Belgium. They are among the strongest breeds with huge hooves, a gentle spirit, intelligence, and the even-tempered patience required for the strenuous and demanding fishing. They are believed to be direct lineal descendants of the classic “Flemish Great Horses” that carried medieval knights (think: Charlemagne) into battle.
The Paardevissers walk their steeds about 100 meters from the shore parallel to the coastline, but perpendicular to the tide. The Belgian draft horses drag a metal chain from behind which “scares” the shrimp into the nets. Shrimp fishing takes place an hour and a half before and after low tide while the Paardevissers fish in one-hour intervals to rest their horses. It is a spectacle to behold!
The “horse-fishermen” are most effective in the warmer months (from April to October) which is when the tradition is open to the public. Since 1950, the annual Oostduinkerke Shrimp Festival has taken place at end of June. Replete with demonstrations, concerts, local markets, and a parades, the event typically attracts 10,000 international visitors. The festival often features a shrimp cooking masterclass. It is widely accepted that the grey shrimp that are caught in this part of the North Sea are of the highest quality and have been an important part of Belgian cuisine for centuries. It is no accident that well over half of all the shrimp caught in the North Sea are consumed in Belgium.
Some of the more popular dishes that incorporate North Sea grey shrimp include the “shrimp croquette” entrée: a deep-fried roll with shrimp filled with creamy butter, milk, and melted cheese. Similarly, the “tomate-crevette” entrée is a hollowed-out tomato filled with toasted shrimp and mayonnaise. But for many, boiled grey shrimp are best served simply atop buttered brown bread. Locals strongly recommend accompanying any of the above with an aged sour brown ale (e.g., The Oud Bruin) or a Flemish Red. (Full disclosure: one food critic recently described the shrimp croquette, when paired with the oak-aged Redenbach Caractéore Rouge beer, to be “heavenly sublime.”)
In 2013 UNESCO added The Paardevissers of Oostduinkerke as part of their Intangible Cultural Heritage list. Unlike the actual physical UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Belgium (e.g., La Grande Palace, Bruges Historic Center) an “intangible award” is recognition of preserving dynamic traditions and living cultural heritages. UNESCO recognized Oostduinkerke’s efforts to preserve the knowledge of their 500-year-old craft, their respect for their marine environment, festivals, performing arts and gastronomic artistry.
In 1967 a group of civic-minded Oostduinkerkenaars (yet another Flemish tongue twister!) met to discuss ways to maintain their regionally unique tradition of shrimp fishing on horseback. Additionally, they wished to promote tourism and the local gastronomy by establishing a fraternal organization to further those aims. In 2016 King Philippe and Queen Mathilde awarded their efforts with the royal title: The Royal Order of the Horse Fishermen.
As the warmer summer months approach and the Paardevissers begin to publicly display their craft, see for yourself what UNESCO has recognized. Consider too the beautiful beaches, the stately Belgian horses, and the shrimp entrees fresh from the sea. Did I mention the beer?