Fresh Lobster

For the last year or so I've been passing a little lane in the New Forest which says, "Fresh Lobster and Crab, Live and Cooked".  I can't think why I haven't checked it out yet, although to date my experience of New Forest's food producers has been pretty disappointing - there are a few amazing places like Laverstock, but lots of the produce seems to disappear straight to London.

Though we have three marina's and are a seaside town, our only fishmonger opened and closed within a year. Despite his thriving Saturday market stall, there wasn't enough business to support a shop. For a while it seemed busy, but if most people do their shopping at the huge Waitrose, or the Tesco, little suppliers die on their feet. What a shame!

But back to my lobster... I was passing the lane again, and decided if there really was a supplier of live lobster, I needed to meet them! I drove down the ridiculously tiny lane, and emerged at a little run down farm. Outside were two or three big boiling pots, and inside were probably five large crates of very fresh and kicking lobster. The staff were pretty helpful, if slightly shocked to see someone. They explained that they supplied most of the pubs and some of the restaurants in the area, with cooked lobster and dressed crab.

I was offered the pick of the crates - I knew I wanted girls, because the meat goes onto the tail, as opposed to the big fighting claw you see on male lobsters. The staff also showed me how to identify females from the tail alone - females have a feathery frill along their tail, which helps retain the roe. I was offered my lobster in a plastic bag, but that was just a test to see if I knew my business - lobster should never be bagged as they suffocate. I left with two lobsters in a box, happy to have found a new supplier.

Now how to serve them? I'm not massively keen on griddled lobster, although done properly it can be fabulous. I remember vividly picking a lobster in a Parisian restaurant the was poached in beautifully prepared broth of fresh market vegetables - utterly divine! I wasn't sure I could replicate their vegetables though, and didn't have enough variety in my own garden to ensure success.

Normally I'd have a look at The River Cottage Fish Book, but I remembered Ramsay having a book with a lobster on the cover - it was Ramsay' Secrets. In it was a recipe very similar to Cecconi's lobster, potato and pancetta salad - which I love. And Ramsay had a way of preparing the lobster I hadn't come across before.

The traditional methods for despatching your lobster at home are:

  • Plunging it headfirst into boiling water
  • Driving a large blade through the cross indented on the back of the lobsters head
  • Putting it into the freezer for 30-120 minutes to send it into hibernation, followed by any of the above methods

For most home cooks, hibernation is the kindest way to prepare your lobster for it's transition into yumminess - and don't forget that a stressed lobster quite literally does not taste the same as a calm lobster.

Ramsay's method involved ripping the lobster's tail off (!). You sedate your lobster, then holding the head in one hand, you pull the tail away from the body (with a pretty strong tug), then push it back towards the head again, which I didn't understand. I couldn't bring myself to do this - so we sedated them, spiked the lobster through the skull - then the Hubby pulled of the tails. Actually, it's pretty effective - it removes the black liver or tomally from the tail, and leaves it neat and clean. Another tip was to grasp the middle tail fin (scale? feather?), snap it up, the pull it out sharply - this removes the swim bladder /intestinal tract - again very effective...

Then it's off withe the claws :0). You boil the claws for around five minutes, and the tails for just over three. Ramsay's other great tip is to tie the tail together end to end, which keeps the tail straight, allowing you to cut perfect medallions, which it did. (Don't forget you can keep your shell to make lobster bisque, or lobster oil).

I then cooked some pancetta in-between two roasting trays, which gives lovely flat and crisp shards, and boiled some charlotte potatoes. You serve the lobster with the potatoes, fresh mayonnaise, and herb salad, placing the crispy pancetta on top. It's yummy!

If you're eating in a restaurant that serves lobster, you might want to check that they have something like a Crustastun.  Lots of leading animal wellfare organisations support the use of a Crustastun and you you ask the kitchen if they have one.

How Crustastun works

The premise of Crustastun is straightforward. The lid of the unit contains an electrode and a damp electrode sponge. The base of the unit contains a tank of salt water, with another electrode.

The animal is placed belly down on a sprung tray in the unit. As the lid is closed, the shellfish and tray are pushed down by the electrode sponge into the saline solution. The operator then presses one of the stun buttons on the front of the machine and a current passes through the 13 brain centres of a lobster, or the two brain centres of a crab.

The stun current works by instantly interrupting the nerve function, so that the shellfish cannot receive stimuli and therefore cannot feel pain. This takes less than half a second. The prolonged application of the stun, for up to ten seconds, kills it.

Using the freshwater drowning method, a crab can take 12 hours to die

This method has been researched by Dr David Robb of Bristol University, UK. Dr Robb has scientifically established that a current of 1–1.3 amps, applied for five to ten seconds, is required to stun and kill a shellfish. Crustastun uses a typical current of 4–6 amps to ensure that shellfish die quickly, with an absolute minimum of distress.

The electro-stunning technique is in stark contrast to killing methods such as freshwater drowning, where a crab can take 12 hours to die, depending on water temperature. During this time the animals produce stress hormones such as cortisol, which adversely affect meat quality. Crabs and lobsters dispatched using Crustastun produce meat of noticeably better taste and texture.

The key components of the Crustastun

The typical current profile when stunning
a crab during a 10 second stun cycle.
The current peaks at 8 amps, even
though a current of only 1.3 amps is
required to successfully stun the animal.