I was introduced to my first lobster, aged 12, at an Italian restaurant called La Perla. My father was keen to train his children’s palates and he liked to spoil us. I had already mastered the prawn, not yet the ubiquitous sandwich filling it was to become, and it was time to progress to larger crustaceans. So it was that, perched on the precipice of puberty, I made eye contact with the strangest creature I had ever encountered. I loved the ceremony with which this dish was served and eaten. The special tableware, bibs, finger bowls, nutcrackers and scrapers elevated the experience into the realm of surgery. This was not a meal to gulp down but one to approach with precision and skill, respectful diners being richly rewarded by morsels of the utmost delicacy from awkward and inaccessible nooks and crannies. Not fast food.
I was hooked, but unfortunately lobster was an expensive meal. My favourite dish was only to be ordered if a special occasion was being celebrated, which only increased its desirability. During my adolescence I slowly worked my way through lobster thermidor, grilled with lemon butter or simply served cold with a good mayonnaise. It became my ‘last meal’ option, should I ever find myself on Death Row, despite the unlikely scenario of my being seated in such an undesirable dining room or of this delicacy being on the menu.
Once I began to cook for myself I discovered that live lobsters could be purchased at a reasonable price directly from the fisheries in the local harbour. So began a new chapter in my love affair with the lobster. The only difficulty I encountered was how to take a live creature and render it dead. Kill it, in other words. I took the coward’s route in those days, tipping the creatures into a bath filled with cold water, shutting the bathroom door and leaving them to their fate. Looking back now I feel ashamed that my squeamishness led me to allow the lobsters to suffocate. Clearly I loved them more dead than alive.
When I became a mother I assumed the mantle of training my own children’s palates. I introduced them slowly to the sea floor, creature by creature. Over many summer holidays and hundreds of visits to our favourite fish markets, I watched the lobsters crawling over their beds of ice. I began to feel sad that these magnificent creatures were being weighed and sold by the dozen to well-heeled holidays makers against whose appetite for luxury they stood no chance of survival. Yet I made daily purchases of live crabs, prawns, oysters, mussels, bulots and clams. My sons joked that no crustacean was safe when I went to the market. Except for the lobster, a creature from my childhood which I no longer felt entitled to kill. Perhaps it was the extraordinary size that some of these creatures had attained and my calculations about how many years it must have taken to grow. I felt strangely maternal towards them, protective, as if somehow they had a higher purpose than their bivalve buddies or smaller crustacean cousins.
This summer we holidayed on the Ile de Noirmoutier, off the south west coast of France, where I encountered a profusion of lobsters. On market days the scales were full, euros changing hands as if no recession had reached these shores. Once again I considered the huge creatures with blue tails and concluded that I had no right to deprive them of life. Yet I felt compelled to return again and again to look.
My eldest son had turned 12 and had mastered the prawn, clam, mussel, bulot and oyster. Perhaps I wanted my children to experience the special thrill of eating their first lobster – or l’homard as we call it in France – and to share with them one of the culinary highlights of my childhood.
One day my favourite shellfish stall was selling smaller lobsters. My reluctance was overcome and I bought four for dinner. I realised that I could no longer take the coward’s route and would have to address the dispatching of them to lobster heaven. The fishmonger told me to place them in the vegetable compartment of the fridge wrapped in wet newspaper. Five minutes before execution they were to be placed in the freezer to anaesthetise them and then I was to plunge a sharp knife into the head and kill them instantly. As to the preferred cooking method, a discussion ensued between the fishmonger and another customer who disagreed as to whether garlic should ever be added to the melted butter or whether lobster is best eaten hot from the grill or cold with mayonnaise. Eventually the woman shrugged and concluded ‘chacun a son gout’ – everyone to their own taste.
I cycled home with the lobsters in a bag on the back of my bike, placed them as instructed in the fridge and went off to the beach. That evening I placed the lobsters in the freezer and hoped they would fall into a deep sleep. Five minutes later they were very much alive. I had a flashback to the scene in Annie Hall where the lobsters escape but Woody Allen was not present to turn this into comedy. There was no way to avoid the gruesome task. I laid out the first one on a chopping board and did the deed. It made an awful crunch. A terrible twitching which continued after the evisceration.
‘It’s still alive’ I bleated to my husband who was on standby to provide moral support.
“It can’t be since you have taken its insides out!’ he observed.
I could not go on. That afternoon I had discussed with my children that animals have to first be killed and do not just ship up sanitised and wrapped in plastic. We had debated what creatures we might be able to slaughter ourselves if need be and had concluded that nothing larger than a chicken would be possible. Now I had lost heart. My husband bravely took over the knife plunging task while I laid out the chilled creatures and then turned away. One lobster got its revenge in spurting its innards all over my husband’s favourite shirt. The stain was indelible but the lobsters not inedible.
The truth is that they were delicious. I grilled them in their shells on a piping hot grill pan and served them with a simple, lemon butter – no garlic to overpower their delicate flavour. I watched the amazed expression on my sons’ faces when presented with these prehistoric creatures. My eldest asked that his be decapitated saying ‘I draw the line at my food looking at me.’
They set to work opening, cracking, sucking, dipping and scraping. I silently complimented myself on passing on a family tradition and sharing my Madeleine moment with the next generation. As so often, though, one’s adult satisfaction is deflated by the honesty of one’s children. My youngest had the last word:
‘It’s very nice mum, but I’m surprised it’s your favourite food. It’s not as good as a roast chicken’.
ALL PICTURES TAKEN BY MADELEINE MORROW
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