Once considered “poor man’s food,” the lowly lobster has risen in status to much loftier heights.
When renowned French chef Paul Bocuse advised Atlantic Canadians to better appreciate their lobsters, could he have known that this “king of seafood” was once so humble it was used as fertilizer? Spread out over vegetable gardens and cornfields to rot, the lowly crustacean nurtured only the soil that produced the more appreciated crops of carrots, potatoes and corn. Could Bocuse have known of the humiliation of schoolchildren during the difficult years of the Depression when they found lobster sandwiches in their lunchboxes? Considering the esteem in which the shellfish is now held, it would be difficult for anyone, let alone a world-famous chef, to comprehend.
“Vive le homard! The French will eat lots of it,” Bocuse said at a dinner in Moncton, N.B., during a lobster-marketing promotion a few years ago. The American lobster, or Homarus americanus, has long since shed its inferior image, and Atlantic Canadians, limited only by seasonal availability and premium prices, can’t get enough of it.
With the coastal regions divided into 41 districts, including one area off southwestern Nova Scotia that is closed year round, there is an open lobster season somewhere in Atlantic Canada from early March through mid-January. In Newfoundland, that could be from mid-April to about mid-July. In Prince Edward Island it runs roughly from mid-May to mid-July, with another district opening in August and closing about mid-October.
New Brunswick’s three separate districts are also staggered, while in Nova Scotia there is an open season somewhere during the entire time frame. One of the most productive districts, along the southwestern shore of Nova Scotia, opens the last Monday in November and closes on May 31. There is also an offshore lobster fishery open year round. If you missed it, other districts will accommodate you, or you can get your lobsters from the holding tanks or pounds that keep them in year-round supply.
The lobster begins its life as a tiny dark-green egg, only one of between 3,000 and 75,000 eggs that clings to the female’s underbelly for about a year before hatching. The larvae swim freely for a couple of months on the water’s surface, moulting three times and growing with each moult. Still tiny at only half an inch (1 cm) in length, the larvae settle to the sea floor, where they become prey for countless marine creatures.
By their first birthday, the surviving 1 per cent of the offspring has grown to only about 1.5 inches (4 cm), a size that doubles in the next year. It takes an estimated seven years before the little critter becomes a canner-size one-pound (500-g) lobster. Seven years to grow—and little more than seven minutes to eat and enjoy.
Once in a while, a soft-shell lobster may turn up on our plate, and we can feel a bit cheated because the flesh is watery and doesn’t fill the shell. That’s because the lobster has recently shed its old shell in order to grow. At this time the claws are very thin, but give it five hours longer in its habitat and the claws, as well as the rest of the body, will have filled out considerably. In fact, the lobster will have augmented its previous flesh by about 50 per cent.
This moulting usually takes place from late July to early October, which is also when lobsters mate, accounting for the closed season. Once hardened in the cold waters of the North Atlantic, the shells are filled with sweet tender meat, and everything is right with the world. A1.5-pound (750-g) lobster is considered the best size for eating, but larger ones can be just as sweet and tender, as long as they’re not overcooked.
People not too well acquainted with lobsters think of them as red in colour, but “downeasters” know better. Nature gave the lobster a dark green mottled colour on the upper surface and a pale reddish-yellow on the underbelly. Once in a long while, this funny little sea creature turns up blue, orange or white, but if you see an advertisement of a fisherman taking a red lobster out of a trap, you’ll know it isn’t Mother Nature who is being fooled, since lobsters turn red only when cooked.
Some lobster lovers claim that a left-handed female provides the sweetest eating. (The large crusher claw is generally on the left, with the narrow “holder,” or pincer claw, on the right). But can you tell the boys from the girls? To claim bragging rights, turn the lobster over and look at the rows of “swimmerettes” on the underside of the tail. If the first pair (those just behind the legs) is soft and small, it’s sure to be a female. On the male, these are relatively large, hard, smooth and tapering (they’re used during mating to transfer sperm to the female’s sperm sac).
Other sex differences show up in the male’s larger claws (necessary because of his tendency to fight), longer body and narrower tail, as well as the longer and sharper spines on the underside of his tail. Males also are heavier than females of the same length. So if you prefer claw meat, choose the male, even though the female lobster gives a better yield of meat. Because the female has a wider tail, it is considered best for stuffing.
When buying live lobster, choose an active one; pick it up and pull the tail out straight.
If it springs back, it’s a good one; if the tail stays straight, look for another. This tail-stretching test holds true with cooked lobsters as well. The tail section should be tightly closed when purchased and return to this position after straightening.
Lobsters will die if placed in fresh water but will live in the refrigerator for 12 to 24 hours if covered with a damp cloth or newspaper. Cooked lobsters will keep for up to two days when refrigerated. The best way to freeze cooked lobster meat is to cover it with a brine consisting of two teaspoons (10 mL) of salt to each cup (250 mL) of water. Allow one-half inch (1 cm) of head space when sealing. To thaw, allow 15 to 18 hours in the refrigerator or defrost in the microwave for 12 to 14 minutes per pound (500 g).