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Coronavirus turns a Spanish sea delicacy back into daily fare

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In Llançà last month, a kilogram of the prawns went for 36 euros.

[LLANÇÀ, Spain] With an intensity of flavor to match their color, the big, bright-red prawns caught off Spain's eastern coast are the kind of delicacy that someone might eat once or twice in a year and remember fondly for the rest of it.

Around Christmas, when they are often a highlight of restaurants' holiday menus, the wholesale price at the daily fish auctions in ports like that of Llançà, in Catalonia, would be up to 100 euros a kilogram. That is about US$50 a pound. In mid-March, before Spain declared its coronavirus state of emergency, they fetched around 70 euros a kilogram.

In Llançà last month, a kilogram went for 36 euros.

More than 90 per cent of the catch would usually be earmarked for restaurants. With dining rooms closed, that top-end market has disappeared, and the prawns are being picked up at vastly reduced prices by fishmongers who serve a much broader clientele than the elite customers of Spain's best restaurants.

For those working on fishing boats trawling the seabed in search of the prawns — 12 hours at sea can yield just a dozen kilograms or so — the only consolation has been that oil prices have also collapsed during the pandemic, allowing them to use their boats without spending so much on gas.

"The question is whether people will return in large numbers to the restaurants before the oil prices rise again," said Josep Garriga, 71, who has officially retired but who still enjoys prawn fishing alongside his son, Jaume, who has taken over the captaincy of their family boat. "Everything has become like the day-to-day uncertainty of fishing, where you always hope for a good catch but never start with anything guaranteed."

For years, Mr Garriga and a few other local fishers supplied Paco Pérez, a chef whose two-star Michelin restaurant is within walking distance of the port. The lockdown forced Mr Pérez to close up and spend more time inside his adjoining family home. Three Latin American trainees, who arrived for cooking apprenticeships shortly before the beginning of the state of emergency, have also been marooned on his property.

While Mr Pérez is grappling with the cost of closing his flagship restaurant and seven other establishments that he manages worldwide, this unexpected setback has also been a chance for him to reflect about the food chain, and how the closing of restaurants has affected not only his staff but also a selected group of suppliers including fishers, cattle farmers and owners of orchards and vegetable gardens.

"The famous chefs are the faces of our gastronomy, but none of this success would be possible without having a fantastic network of suppliers who can deliver just what I am looking for, depending on the season and the dish that I have in mind," he said.

"Everybody has been talking about not being able to go to a restaurant, but clearly there is also the less visible side of this story, namely the special suppliers who have been suffering heavily because of the coronavirus," he added.

Prawns have always been appreciated by local people, Mr Pérez said, but the growth of Spanish gastronomy has pushed the price of the largest and most famous varieties beyond the reach of normal households. On the other hand, Mr Pérez noted that Spain's fine-dining boom had put on the table some previously discarded items.

"I remember a time before haute cuisine when people here would not even eat some of the wonderful things that I have been cooking," he said, citing the local sea cucumbers that he likes to grill on charcoal, serve in a stew, or even sometimes combine with pig's trotters.

Since the closing of restaurants, some premium food distributors have also recently been scrambling to find new customers.

"In the last 20 years, gastronomy made all sorts of seafood very fashionable, from our prawns to our urchins," said Xavier Calsina Bosch, a local fish distributor. "Many in our business are now seeing the clear disadvantage of having become highly dependent on restaurants, but I still see hope in the longer term, because our great chefs have at least made a lot more people aware of the fantastic variety of produce that can be found along our shores."

During a fish auction recently, David Pareja Martínez, a fishmonger, sat in the stands reserved for the buyers, carefully viewing the different fish that moved along a conveyor belt, as if watching a fashion catwalk. Among his purchases were eight crates of large red prawns, which he packed in extra ice before driving them back to his shop in Girona, an hour away.

"I have customers who were not even dreaming before this crisis about buying such prawns, but who are of course now very happy to be able to afford them," he said.

The chance may not last. Catching the prawns is complicated: They shelter far below the surface in rocky, hard-to-access areas. Fishers must steer their boats slowly along the path of underwater canyons, casting huge nets at a depth of about 2,600 feet.

Spain is returning gradually to what Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez has called "the new normalcy," with plans to remove lockdown restrictions by late June. While restaurants were allowed in May to reopen outdoor eating areas, Mr Pérez, the chef, said he was planning to welcome back patrons inside his establishment by July 1.

If the premium market does not recover soon, Mr Garriga said, he and his son will focus on searching instead for sea bream and other more common fish that are sold in supermarkets and whose price has not been undermined by the coronavirus lockdown.

Asked whether he had ever seen anything like this crisis, Mr Garriga recalled his youth, spent in the isolated and impoverished fishing community of Llançà before foreign tourists started to turn Spain into one of Europe's main beach holiday destinations.

"I grew up in a house without a door, electricity or running water, and I remember having my first home shower when I was 14," he said. "This coronavirus has brought about a tough time, but nobody needs to teach me anything about living in hardship."

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