In the Belgian village of Oustduinkerke (West Dunkirk) on the North Sea, a 500-year-old tradition endures: shrimp fishing on horseback. It is the only place on record in the world where this unique practice occurs. That’s why it made UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage List in 2013, requiring the village to put in place a preservation strategy.
Shrimp fishing on horseback is one of the most difficult fishing practices in history as it requires mastery of both large horses and tiny shrimp. A “paardenvisser” walks a horse parallel to the sea about 100 meters from the shore dragging a large net with a metal chain that « scares » grey shrimp into the net. The Brabant draft horses are large and powerful while the shrimp are a delicate delicacy in Belgian cuisine.
Historically, this tradition was practiced by men only due to its difficulty. But with UNESCO recognition, it became an equal opportunity practice and two women have since joined the team of 17 elite horse fishers. They belong to an 8,500-person Flemish community in northwestern Belgium, which has passed down shrimp fishing from generation to generation within about a dozen families. Each household is responsible for necessary skill such as net weaving, assessing sea conditions or caring for horses.
In July 2020, I had the pleasure of following the first female horse fisher in this practice for the story “Europe’s 500-Year-Old Seafood Tradition” for BBC Travel online,* including photos and video. I met Nele Bekaert at her horse pasture, where I interviewed her on a haystack and filmed her rigging up a cart with shrimp buckets to her Belgian horse Axel. I continued filming from the cart while Nele directed Axel through village roads to the seashore. We rode across a long stretch of sand at low tide, which is the optimal time for catching tiny, grey shrimp buried in the ocean floor.
Once we arrived at the sea’s edge, Nele put on a yellow slicker from head to toe and waterproof boots. She removed the cart from Axel and replaced it with a large dragnet that has wooden boards on either side to stabilize it underwater. She mounted tall Alex with ease and led him into the ocean until he was thigh-high in water. Then she turned him 25 degrees to walk parallel to the horizon — a stunning sight that led to about one kilogram of shrimp.
After about an hour, Nele returned Axel to the shore with a semi-full net. She opened the net in the sand and fished out small crabs, a sole fish and a few other non-target organisms. She put the shrimp in a filter, sending those not big enough to eat back to sea. The rest she put in a bucket to take home. Normally, Nele would cook her catch on the beach as part of a summer tourist demonstration. But since COVID-19 was in the air, the public event excluded tasting the shrimp.
However, I had the good fortune of doing so privately. I rode on Nele’s cart with the shrimp back to the pasture, where we said goodbye to Axel, and I went home with her for an unofficial cooking show with live shrimp (they are best boiled alive to maintain their freshness).
We were greeted by her shrimp-fishing husband, Chris Vermote, and two children, who were eager to see the day’s catch. Nele set up a little cauldron outside of her garage and filled it with water. Once boiling, she poured the shrimp in. When they turned pink, she fished them out with a slotted spoon and put them on a wooden board to dry. She peeled a few for us to taste. It was the best grey shrimp I ever had.
After this taste, I no longer wondered if her family got tired of eating shrimp on a regular basis. If they have too much to eat themselves, Nele has a call list of neighbors to whom she sells surplus shrimp.
Perhaps the toughest part of shrimp fishing is peeling the shrimp. Because they are so small, it is a tedious task that only paardenvissers like Nele have mastered. (In the commercial fishing industry, grey shrimp are often shipped to Morocco for peeling and sent back for consumption!)
Nele and her husband are training their now 14-year-old son to join them among the ranks of paardenvissers as the first shrimp-fishing family with three members. Their 11-year-old twin daughters will also be trained once they get older.
This season, tourist demos are back in full force, including cooking and tasting the day catch on the beach. The 45-minute demos are scheduled according to low tide, with the most occurring in July and August. An annual two-day Shrimp Festival is normally scheduled in Oustduinkerke in June (not during COVID-19) and this year will be June 25-26. This spectacle includes a shrimp-catching competition among the horse fishers and a parade in which the competition winner rides first. It brings about 10,000 international visitors to the village.
The festival was started in 1950 by an astute mayor of Koksijde, Oostuinkerke’s neighboring town, in order to save horseback shrimp fishing from extinction by making it a tourist attraction. The festival and public demonstrations have been supported and partly subsidized by the municipality ever since. The current mayor even serves as one of nine judges for the practical exam of new paardenvissers upon their completion of a two-year internship. (I had the pleasure of observing the second female horse fisher, Katrien Terryn, pass her exam in 2020.)
To get to Oustduinkerke, you can take a train from any of Belgium’s major cities to Oostende, the largest coastal municipality (the only city among several towns), then take the Coastal Tram south.
The Belgian coast has 65 kilometers of sandy coastline and 10 seaside towns from De Panne close to France to Knokke-Heist near the Netherlands. Oostende, De Haan and Nieuwpoort are my favorites with nice beaches unobstructed by rental huts. It’s worth visiting one or more of these towns after seeing the paardenvissers at work. But no trip to Belgium in the summer should miss the incredible, centuries-old tradition of shrimp fishing on horseback. And no trip to Belgium at any time of year should exclude tasting grey shrimp.
* This story was part of BBC Travel’s special 2021 series called “50 Reasons to Love the World,” featuring well-known voices and unsung heroes in local communities around the globe. It won the first place 2022 M.F.K. Fisher Prize for journalism from Les Dames d’Escoffier International.