Guernsey: the Lobster Saga Part 2

August 24, 2009 § Leave a comment

The Big Day had dawned: I was going to prepare (euphemism of course for kill) my first lobster and then prepare the classic dish of Homard a l’Américaine for the very first time. I planned to follow the elaborate instructions given in classic cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Louisette Bertholle, Simone Beck and Julia Child. Volume I of this magnum opus gives the recipe and Volume II gives magnificent anatomical instructions and drawings.

First catch your lobster.  Arthur and I checked the bus timetable and chose the 8.30 commuter service into St Peter Port, travelling with the pinstripe-suited bankers and back-office workers who make up a high percentage of Guernsey’s population.

We soon arrived in Town, as St Peter Port is universally known, and made our way to Seafresh Fishmongers where we were fast becoming regular customers.  We picked up our lively lobster, a good size weighing in at just over 3 lb, female.  We christened her Les (for the alliteration) and sadly she soon became known as Fat Les…

A request to have her packaged for our return journey resulted, in no-nonsense Guernsey style, in our being handed a second plastic bag.


We took the opportunity to enjoy a quick cappuccino on the harbourside and a read of the papers – full of coverage of England’s Ashes victory the day before – before hopping back on the bus with lobster quietly  on the seat beside us.


On our return back to the apartment, we unwrapped Fat Les from her inelegant double plastic bag and stowed her gingerly in the base of the fridge loosely wrapped in paper.  She seemed pretty calm.

After spending the afternoon on the beach, surf lesson and swimming, we returned to the apartment ready to do the deed and despatch Fat Les to the cooking pot.  She still seemed pretty lively after half a day in the fridge as the following video clip demonstrates:

The recipe I’d chosen, Homard a l’Américaine, didn’t allow for the cheat’s option of merely dropping the lobster into boiling water but demanded the Full Monty, severing the spinal cord with a sturdy kitchen knife.  I won’t dwell on the details but it wasn’t pleasant.  Intent on being certain that the lobster had been properly despatched, I nearly removed the poor creature’s head in an executioner’s strike.  Nevertheless the muscle spasms which followed (which Mastering the Art of French Cooking warns you to expect) were still alarming.

We’d done most of the advance preparation for the recipe, the mise en place as chefs call it, earlier in the day.  You can see from the following picture that we’d improvised with a couple of ingredients we come to hand.  Fish stock is hard to come by when you are cooking on holiday so we boiled up some winkles gathered the day before from Lihou island.  Wild fennel grows nearby in abundance and as its herby aniseed flavour works well with fish, I decided to flavour the sauce with it.


I can’t pretend this recipe is simple: it took an age to butcher the lobster and I learned that a bit of simple brute force is the best thing to crack those tough claws.  The claw crackers in the kitchen drawer  were feeble in the extreme and didn’t even make a dent.  A rock from the beach was an inelegant but effective substitute.

Following the admirably clear and detailed instructions in Mastering the Art of French cooking, the frankly rather disgusting looking grey green mush inside the lobster (which is in fact the liver or tomalley) was turned into a delicious enrichment for the sauce.  I was mystified at first by the abundance of a second type of gunge in the body cavity, this one a dark moss green.  I worked out that this must be the roe and confirmed this by heating a little in a small frying pan whereupon it was miraculously transformed by the heat into a familiar firm red form.  I was jubilant to have discovered a small mistake in the normally word perfect recipe – the recipe refers to the roe as being a bright orange red which of course is only true when it is in its cooked state.

An hour or so of chopping, frying, sieving and boiling later, the finished dish was ready, served with steamed long grain rice and lightly cooked French beans.  It was absolutely delicious but had been hard and harrowing work.  Here is the finished dish:DSC00937

Here is the recipe taken straight from Volume I Mastering the Art of French cooking.  For the detailed lobster preparation instructions and wonderfully instructive drawings by Sidonie Coryn, you’ll have to get hold of  copy of Volume II for yourself.

Recipe for Homard a l’Américaine

For 6 people

Three 1 and 1/2 lb live lobsters

Split the lobsters in two lengthwise.  Remove sand sacs in the heads and intestinal tubes.  Reserve coral and green matter. Remove claws and joints and crack them.  Separate tails from chests.

2tbl olive oil  A heavy 12-in enamelled frying-pan or casserole

Heat the oil in the frying-pan until it is very hot but not smoking.  Add the lobster pieces, meat-side down, and sauté for several minutes, turning them, until the shells are bright red.  Remove lobster to a side dish.

1 medium carrot, finely diced            1 medium onion, finely diced

Stir in the diced carrot and onion, and cook slowly for 5 minutes or until almost tender.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F., Mark 4.

Salt and pepper
3 tbl. chopped shallots or spring onions
1 clove mashed garlic
1/8 pt cognac
1 lb. fresh ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded, juiced, and chopped
2 tbl. tomato paste
1/2 pt fish stock
3/4 pt dry white wine or 1/2 pt dry white vermouth
Optional: 1/2 tbl. meat glaze
2 tbl. chopped parsley
1 tbl. fresh tarragon

Season the lobster, return it to the frying-pan, and add the shallots or spring onions, and the garlic.  With the frying pan over moderate heat, pour in the cognac.  Avert your face and ignite the cognac with a lighted match and shake the frying-pan slowly until the flames have subsided.  Stir in all the ingredients and bring to simmering point on top of the stove.  Cover and place in the middle part of a pre-heated oven.  Regulate heat so that lobster simmers quietly for 20 minutes.

3 oz softened butter                 A 5-pt mixing bowl
The lobster coral and green matter

While the lobster is simmering, force the lobster coral and green matter with the butter through a fine sieve into the mixing-bowl and set aside.

When the lobster is done, remove it to a side dish.  Take the meat out of the shells if you wish.  Place frying-pan with its cooking liquids over high heat and boil down rapidly until sauce has reduced and thickened slightly.  It will acquire more body later when the butter and coral mixture is added.  Taste very carefully for seasoning.

(*) Recipe may be completed to this point, and finished later.

Return the lobster to the sauce and bring to simmering point to reheat the lobster.  Beat 1/2 pint of hot sauce by drops into the coral and butter mixture, then pour the mixture into the frying-pan with the lobster.  Shake and swirl the frying-pan over low heat for 2 to 3 minutes to poach the coral and green matter, but do not bring the sauce near simmering point again.

A ring of risotto or of steamed rice
2 to 3tbp. chopped parsley, or parsley and fresh tarragon

Arrange the lobster and sauce in the rice ring, decorate with the herbs, and serve immediately.

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