THE New England seaboard is famed for its lobster, so Philippa Davis thought she should learn a little more about this delicious crustacean as well as cooking and eating lobster after lobster for her Boston clients.
Theoretically, a lobster can live forever. They have an enzyme called telomerase, which prevents the DNA from becoming damaged as it replicates – for us mere humans it is the shortening of the DNA strands that is thought to age us. What can however pluck the lobsters from their mortal coil are disease and various predators, including me.
In order to grow a lobster has to molt its shell. In the first year they do this about 40 times, the second year about four times, the third and fourth years two or three times and in the fourth to sixth years about once a year. Once they reach age seven, which is roughly when they will be big enough to be eaten they usually molt once every two or three years. For Maine lobster it is about now in the year that they decide to do this.
The lobster sheds its shell then puffs itself up with water to stretch the new softer shell that was underneath until that too hardens. For eating purposes I think it is best to avoid these softer shell lobsters as although easier to get the meat out it can be quite watery and the yield much lower, particularly in the claws. On a side note, a lobster who has lost one claw is called a cull and for the poor things that have lost both they are called a pistol.
When catching lobsters in your own pots there are strict rules about what you can keep and what you must release. Size is important. It must be between 3¼ inches and 5 inches from the extreme rear of the eye socket to the end of the carapace – which is the head section of the shell. You are forbidden to take a female if she is bearing eggs or if she has a notch in her tail. The fishing area around Maine has introduced a system where if you find a female that produces eggs but otherwise would have been OK to take, you put a notch in its tail to the right of the middle flipper. This will be noticeable for a couple of years and stop others from taking the egg-producing lobster even if it doesn’t have any at the time of catch.
From a chef’s and diner’s perspective it is amazing to cook and eat so many lobsters in a short period and totally get to grip with cooking times and preferred methods of preparation. Besides the luxury of having an endless supply of lobster and getting the chance to cook it every which way, my highlight of the week was … catching my first fish. I will try not to embellish the story but it was far more exciting than predicted.
Our early morning start (by 5.30am we had our backs to the shore) was soon followed by a lecture, but not in boat safety or tips on how to cast. No. I had once again made the mistake of joshing with a fisherman that I couldn’t quite see what would be fun about fishing and that I suspected a fishing boat was basically a floating ‘man shed’. Luckily the lecture was short and took mostly the form of you just wait and see. I think this was due to the fact neither of us had had our morning coffee fix.
Traveling at a certain number of knots over a certain distance of nautical miles (OK I clearly didn’t listen properly to that bit) we eventually stopped the boat and prepared to fish. Our aim was to catch some mackerel to use as bait to catch some striped bass – large silvery fleshy white fish that are rather popular around the US of A’s east coast.
To catch the mackerel you dangle a line into the water dotted with bright lures and consistently sharply pull it up and then let it sink so it catches the mackerel’s eye. I did this for about 10 minutes to no effect, thinking well at least it was kind of a work-out but then found myself gradually becoming transfixed by the waves, the sound of the water and continual motion of my surroundings. I still hadn’t caught anything after 15 minutes but curiously noticed my involuntary reluctance at handing over the line. My fishing partner caught one in about five minutes, which made me even more determined to take back the line and get one. I shortly did and then riding on the high caught another two at once. Total pro, I know!
The mackerel were kept alive and hooked up to a bigger rod, which we floated out to sea to try and lure a striped bass on to. I could tell you how within the first 10 minutes we both caught impressive three foot fish which would have fed the North End of Boston – but I would be lying. We watched the lines bob up and down for about an hour, then as there were no takers packed up and went home. Anticlimactic? Not in the slightest – there is something incredible about being out on the sea early in the morning; very peaceful yet demanding and I can feel myself getting hooked.
For Philippa’s recipe for brioche for the East Coast classic lobster sandwich turn to On The Menu on the Food pages.