Gambas de Palamós:
Palamós Prawns

🕔 9 mins (total)
Some characteristically red Palamós Prawns
Some characteristically red Palamós Prawns

If you’ve spent any time on the Costa Brava you’ll almost certainly have noticed Gambas de Palamós popping up on restaurant menus just about everywhere – and not just in the port town of Palamós itself, but all along the coast.

Noted for their attractive reddish colour, firm texture, distinctive aroma, and freshness, these particular gambas should be high up on the list of local dishes to sample for every visitor to the region.

So, what are Gambas de Palamós?

Well, first of all, the word gamba translates as “prawn” or “shrimp” in, conveniently, both Castellano (Spanish) and Catalan; and although the plural in Castellano is “gambas”, but “gambes” in Catalan, both are pronounced similarly. So why are they called “Palamós prawns” specifically, considering that the species can be found all around the Mediterranean Sea and also in the Atlantic Ocean between Portugal and Cabo Verde? Well come to that in a little bit, but first a little history.

The “Palamós prawn” is a crustacean of the species Aristeus antennatus, that typically lives at a depth of about 400 metres or more. Until the 1930s the species was not very well known or fished in these parts, but it was around that time that the trawlers of the Catalan fishing fleet began to be motorized, allowing them access to fishing grounds found at much greater depths.

With these improvements to the fishing industry, (from the point of view of the fishermen that is, not the shrimp!), many fishermen from southern Catalunya, especially Tarragona, and also from the Comunidad de Valencia, started migrating north to fish the waters off La Costa Brava, and, as Palamós had been a port and a fishing town since the mid-1200s, many of them settled there and in other nearby fishing villages, bringing with them some more efficient trawling techniques.

Then, in the middle of the last century, important new fishing grounds began to be discovered offshore, in particular around La Fonera and Canyó de Palamós, attracting more migrant fishermen. Today the fishing fleet of Palamós is the biggest on the Costa Brava.

El Pedró, Palamós

This migration of fishermen north to La Costa Brava obviously had an impact on the fishing towns of the region, creating the need for additional housing in particular. The Confraria de Pescadors de Palamós (Fisherman’s Guild) obtained land in the neighbourhood of El Pedró in the old part of the town and, over time, built suitable houses for these migrant fishermen and their families. Most of those houses remain virtually unchanged to this day.

Houses built for migrant fishermen in El Pedró, back in the day
Houses built for migrant fishermen in El Pedró, back in the day
The fishermen’s houses have hardly changed over the years.
The fishermen’s houses have hardly changed over the years.

Modernization

From the 1950s on, fishing fleets along the Costa Brava continued to grow, both in the number of fishing boats and also in terms of the size and power of the vessels. In the 1960s, as part of a national plan to rebuild the Spanish fishing industry after a decline resulting from the Civil War followed immediately by World War II, fishermen were offered easier lines of credit in order to invest in larger and more modern fishing boats. This resulted in the fishing fleet increasing its shrimp-fishing capacity in particular by about 400% by the 1980s. (If we calculate from the 1950s to today, the fleet’s capacity has increased by over 8000%!).

Overfishing

In the 1980s some were beginning to voice concern about the scale of fishing here and the long-term effects this could have on the industry. By the 1990s there was no longer any doubt as the symptoms of overfishing were clear for all to see with catch figures in constant decline. As a result of this overexploitation, the pioneering Pla de Gestió de la Gamba de Palamós, or “Palamós Prawn Management Plan”, was eventually set up in 2013, the first of its kind in the western Mediterranean. It is a cooperative designed and run by local fishermen themselves with the participation of the scientific community.

One of the more obvious steps taken by this co-op in the interests of securing the long-term future of the fishing industry is the 8-week moratorium placed on fishing starting from the first weekend after the Dia de Reyes on 6 January every year. In order to be able to guarantee the supply to the markets, the exact dates and areas where the moratorium is implemented are rotated between the various fishing fleets.

These measures are applied to 22 vessels with their base port in Palamós and 7 fishing grounds located along the Canyó de la Fonera: Rostoll, Candelero, San Sebastián, Abyssinia, Els Clots, Llevant and La Malica.

Prawn fishing grounds off the coast of Palamós
Prawn fishing grounds off the coast of Palamós

Gamba de Palamós: marca de garantía

And so, finally, we come to the name. As mentioned at the start, the species of prawn that the Palamós variety belongs to can be found throughout most of the Mediterranean and in parts of the Atlantic Ocean. In 2009 however, Gambas de Palamós was created as a specific brand, certifying the origin and quality of the prawns caught in the waters off the coast of the port.

This is similar in purpose to the Denominación de Orígen labels you will see on bottles of wine in Spain in that it guarantees that the live, fresh, or frozen prawns bearing the Gambas de Palamós; marca de garantía, were fished from “the extraction areas of Palamós and collected under the conditions of the regulations for the use of the brand that requires compliance with the best conditions of handling, temperature and storage in the treatment of the product, from the point of origin to the final consumer.”

On a daily basis, all shrimp caught are subjected to quality control, identifying the fishing ground and ensuring that criteria, such as appearance, texture, units per kilo, and temperature arriving in port, are all met before being passed fit to be auctioned in the fish market. Only those that satisfy the requirements established by these regulations will be officially labeled as “Gambas de Palamós”. You may find the same species of prawn elsewhere under a different name, but without the same guarantee of quality.

If you happen to be buying your shrimp (or other seafood) in a Mercadona supermarket, by the way, you’ll notice that the produce is displayed in either a blue or a green box. There’s a reason behind this, that being to differentiate between what was raised on a fish farm, frozen, and then thawed for sale – blue box; from fresh seafood that was caught wild and never frozen – green box. Anything bearing the Gambas de Palamós brand, therefore, should be found only in a green box.

Gambas de Palamós bear not one, but two, brands of quality!
Gambas de Palamós bear not one, but two, brands of quality!

Productes de l’Empordà

In addition to the Gambas de Palamós seal of approval, in 2015 this product is now also incorporated into the Productes de l’Empordà brand guarantee. This label includes only the best products from the Empordà region, meaning both the prawns and the fish market are required to periodically undergo rigorous examination in a food laboratory that runs controls on the prawns at various stages of production and certifies (or not) their quality. The purpose of Productes de l’Empordà is to promote and market products specifically from the region, so only the very best are awarded the lab

Fishermen returning to Palamós port
Fishermen returning to Palamós port
Unloading the day’s catch, ready for auction
Unloading the day’s catch, ready for auction
El Museu de la Pesca - The Fishing Museum
El Museu de la Pesca – The Fishing Museum

Palamós Fishing Museum

Right beside the fish market (where the catch is auctioned off every evening from Monday to Friday) you’ll also find the Fishing Museum, housed in a former boat shed beside the fish market. Opening times vary a little depending on the time of year and all the info is available on the website. Entry is only €5 for adults, except on the first Sunday of every month when it is free (except in July and August).

El Museu de la Pesca celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2022 and over those 20 years it has evolved and developed to become more than just a museum about fishing. It has multiple expositions, some temporary and some permanent, as well as regular events such as cooking workshops, a fish auction, and guided tours, not just of the local fishing fleet but also of other local areas of interest such as the Castell de St Esteve at La Fosca beach or the Iberian ruins at Platja de Castell.

With a bit of advance planning some tours and visits can be arranged in a number of languages. The museum is also closely involved in the campaign to promote sustainable fishing practices on the Costa Brava. It’s well worth a visit.

A biodegradable audio tour guide card for the fish auction
A biodegradable audio tour guide card for the fish auction
View from above of the bidding process at the auction
View from above of the bidding process at the auction
Colourful displays of shrimp in the Fish Market
Colourful displays of shrimp in the Fish Market

The Fishing Museum also offers an audio guide for those visiting the fish market auction. It is available in four languages: Catalan, Spanish, French and English. The duration of the visit can range from about thirty minutes to an hour, depending on how many boats were out fishing on a given day. The audio explains very clearly how the process works as you watch the day’s catch being auctioned.

For a mere €1.50, each visitor receives a biodegradable card with a scannable QR code to download the guide directly to your smartphone. The programme has 10 separate snippets of under two minutes explaining the different stages. Headphones can be provided to those who require it or who have hearing difficulties, but we’d suggest you bring your own so as not to undo all the good of those biodegradable QR code cards!

The entrance to the “Fish Place” where fish-cooking workshops and tastings take place
The entrance to the “Fish Place” where fish-cooking workshops and tastings take place
The interior of the Espai del Peix, reading for its next workshop
The interior of the Espai del Peix, reading for its next workshop

The “Fish Area”

Right behind the fish market is L’Espai del Peix, (literally, “the fish area” or “fish place”) which offers a number of gastronomic activities relating to the fishing industry and fish in general. There are courses, show-cooking, workshops, and tastings of typical local dishes where you can learn how to identify, prepare and cook fish in the traditional style of the region.

Fishing Tourism

Pescaturisme, or “fishing-tourism”, involves a day of fishing aboard a real fishing boat operating out of the port of Palamós. Guests fully participate in the fishing process and take part – with the crew, of course – in pulling in the catch, all under the watchful eye of the captain. It is also a unique opportunity to see how the crew members work together and learn from the captain’s expert knowledge as well as appreciate the constantly changing nature of the environment and of the job itself.

Currently, the Estrella del Sur III is the only boat on the entire Catalan coast that fulfills all the requirements to be able to carry out pescaturisme activities, allowing them to take out a maximum of four persons per excursion. The day’s fishing starts at 06:30 and lasts until 18:00 and costs €100 per person. Participants get to experience what it is to be a fisherman today compared to times past, learning about traditions and stories passed down through the generations, and a few anecdotes, no doubt, from a trade where no two days are quite the same.

Pescaturisme runs throughout the year, weather-permitting, with the exceptions of the months of January and February when red prawns in particular are at their smallest, and there is a moratorium on fishing out of Palamós to allow fish stocks in general to replenish. If you’re a late riser, this might not be an excursion for you, as you’ll have to be up at the crack of dawn to begin your day of fishing – but on the other hand, the sunrise at sea will almost certainly make it worth the extra bit of effort! Reservations can be made at the Fishing Museum or through their website.

Every year, from around early to mid-May to mid-June, a special Menú de la Gamba featuring the famous red prawn is available in participating restaurants in the town itself and in certain restaurants in nearby municipalities. This year’s edition (2024) runs until 8 June when it concludes with the Fira de Gambas (Prawn Fair) down beside the Fish Market.

Eight restaurants are participating this year: Altamar, Bell Port, Can Blau, Can Quel, el Nàutic de Palamós, Hotel Trias, l’Arcada, and Sant Grillat, while eight more in adjacent Sant Antoni de Calonge are also taking part; Can Roc, Costa Brava, Guillermu, Hº Restaurant de l’Hostal Olga, La Jovita per l’Esteve GV, Nautilus, Refugi de Pescadors and Valentina, as well as Casamar in Llafranc, Es Portió de l’Hostalillo in Tamariu and La Sala d’Isaac in Llofriu.

The gambas served are mostly medium-sized, and some of the innovative plates on offer include rice dishes, noodles casserole, carpaccios, croquettes, and tartar, along with the typical grilled proposals. That’s probably not quite as many different options as Bubba from Forrest Gump would find acceptable, but there’s still plenty of variety to keep just about everyone else happy. The special set menus range from €45 to €90 in price.

Palamós also holds its Terra de Mar festival on the weekend of 18-19 May, with lots of marine-related activities, exhibitions, a market, guided tours, glass-bottom boat tours, and, of course, some prawn and other seafood gastronomy all happening in and around the old port. Not to be missed!

Feeling a sudden urge for a plate of prawns right about now?

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