Lobster is a luxury ingredient because of its price. It is more expensive than prime beef and you can buy a whole lot of chicken for the same money. Or more than a week of vegetables.
Lobster is also relatively rare. It is not threatened with extinction, yet, but it is fished with special cages or sometimes finds itself in dragnets. There are no reared lobster in France, but there is a “lobster farm” in Malaysia that supplies some restaurants in the United States.
The meat of a fresh lobster is very tender and delicate and does not need any additions, apart from some pepper perhaps.
For me, lobster rhymes with seaside holidays where you buy the beasts straight from a basin. The further away from the coast, the higher the chances the animal will have died in the meantime and that deteriorates the taste. A fishmonger’s on Amsterdam’s Albert Cuyp market once told me that it was cheaper to buy large prawns than lobster while the taste was the same.
Well, not really. For both lobster and prawns it is true that freezing kills the taste and you could end up with white, rubbery bits in your mouth. Then it tastes the same…
That is partially the reason why there are so many rather complicated lobster dishes such as Thermidor or à L’Armoricaine (from Armor in Brittany but sometimes also called Américaine because of the tomatoes as in ketchup).
The restaurants in Paris were far away from the Brittany or Normandy coast, especially before rail links and fast roads, and the lobster, crab, oyster and other shellfish was not at its very freshest when found on ice outside the brasseries. That has changed now but it is never as fresh in Paris, or Lyon, as freshly caught on the coast.
In the recipe for Homard Thermidor, the lobster is cut in two, grilled with paprika, pepper, cheese and mushrooms and a sauce with mustard, white wine, tarragon, fish stock and a béchamel of butter, cream and flour. Thermidor was the name for the month from mid-July to mid-August during the first French republic after the revolution and refers to the way the sun is baking the grounds in early summer, like the lobster is grilled in an oven.
Well, as my grandmother and mother would say, which such ingredients and steps you can make a turd taste good.
I would say that you are turning a good ingredient into a turd.
So leave those complicated recipes to over-ambitious cooks or to the lobster bought from the freezing compartments in the supermarket, flown over from the United States or Canada, but not for the fresh Breton variety. And when you have fresh lobster in the states or Canada, do not waste them in such a rich sauce either.
The problem is that you have to buy your lobster while it is alive. Killing for your food is repugnant to many and I appreciate that. However, most people have no qualms about eating animals killed for them. The trick is, in both cases actually, to make sure that the animal in question suffers the least as possible.
Many recipes for cooked lobster plunge the live animal head forwards into boiling water, with the claws tied together and the back fastened on a piece of wood to keep it from retracting. Some cookery books maintain the lobster does not feel a thing…
Other cooks first insert a knife between the eyes to kill it instantly, like the shot used to kill a cow. However, that opens the carapace and then water will get into the animal during cooking.
A third option is to put the lobster in the freezer, it will start hibernating because of the cold and be paralysed before it gets killed. That is the way I do it.
Back to the Sunday market in our town near Paris. A fishmonger had lively lobster of a decent size and interesting price (this particular fishmongers sells his fish by portions on a piece of paper for a fixed prize and not for a price depending on weight, so you see immediately what the final price is). I bought one, plus a kilo of sardines for another time, and took it home where I kept it in the sink.
An hour before cooking I put it in the freezer and after 45 minutes I took it out. It was still, paralysed and probably already dead. I sliced it in two lengthwise with a sharp and large knife, starting with the head, between the eyes, for a fast kill if it had still some life in it.
I took out some of the digestive tract, heated the barbecue and put it on with the shell side down. Then I cooked for about 20 minutes, monitoring the setting of the white flesh. You want it set, not soggy and not over-cooked. I only added some Japanese red pepper and we had some parsley.
I did not add any butter or cream. It was delicious.