Time after time, while watching James Martin’s Saturday Kitchen, we see celebrity after celebrity with lobster as their food heaven. Why is this? Where is that invisible dividing line between ordinary people and celebrities so that if you fall on one side you will never desire the delights of lobster dishes and if you fall on the other side it is a dish you have always craved?
We have just returned from a vacation in Bude, Cornwall, where we both went to school. In fact it was a school reunion we’d been organising. I was looking forward to the trip because, of course, Bude is on the north Cornwall coast where seafood abounds and many small boats ensure a plentiful supply of crabs and lobsters for the restaurants in the town … or so I thought.
We ate at Elements, on the cliffs, a hotel once owned by my parents; we ate at the prestigious Falcon Hotel, a hundred yards from where fish catches are landed; Life’s A Beach which overlooks all of the fishing boats while they swing on their moorings; and other restaurants, too. Not one single restaurant had lobster on the menu, although Elements included lobster tail in another dish. No one provided lobster salads or fruits de mer dishes. It was quite extraordinary and very disappointing.
However, Life’s A Beach offered to get a lobster for me for one evening. Good grief – I had to specially order a lobster? Madness for a harbour town. When the night came, they told me they couldn’t get one after all because of a storm two days previous preventing lobster landings. During the previous day and on the day of the meal I saw a selection of live and cooked lobsters in the fishmonger in Lansdown Road. When I spoke to them they said that they always had a plentiful supply and could supply any hotel, although they couldn’t give me the name of any hotel who purchased from them!
Why do they have a plentiful supply? Do the Bude restaurants believe that the fishmonger throws away a dozen lobsters a day because no one buys them? Of course not. The fishmonger sells those lobsters to people who want to eat them. Yes, amazing, shock upon shock, people in Bude want to eat lobster, but they are forced to prepare and cook it themselves because not one of these seaside resort restaurants can take the trouble to ensure a supply. All Life’s A Beach had to do was to have one delivered to them or collect one for my meal that night. They were not prepared to walk or drive 200 yards to fulfil a promise to a customer because they couldn’t care less!
Well, it got them this review on Trip Advisor!
The previous year, while we were in Glasgow for a Fleetwood Mac concert, we stayed in and around Loch Fyne and area on the west coast of Scotland just north of the Clyde. I managed to find restaurants with lobsters no problem at all and, in one of those restaurants I saw several lobsters served to nearby tables including the one I had with my fruits de mer. People obviously travelled to get this sort of produce and elsewhere there was no problem finding lobster on the menu.
All of this leaves me in a real quandary as to why Inverness does not have a single seafood restaurant worthy of that name?
For a couple of years now I have been able to buy lobster at Fraser’s in the market arcade, Asda and even LIDL. I got two in Frasers the other day for under £12, LIDL’s are usually about £5 and they are £7 in Asda. Okay, the supermarket lobsters are imported frozen from Canada, but Fraser’s seem to have a regular local supply.
Yet, on a curious ring-around I found that none of the better restaurants had lobster on their menu. River House (our favourite restaurant), Mustard Seed, the Kitchen, Rocpool, Rocpool Reserve, Kingsmills, Contrast, Abstract nor the Caledonian. Not even the Loch Ness Inn in Drumnadrochit has lobster on the menu despite its connections with the Applecross Fish Restaurant on the west coast. Bunchrew House Hotel were always prepared to order a lobster in on special request and I’ve eaten them twice there.
Why is this? One restaurant told me lobsters are too expensive? This is simply not the case. I know from speaking to fishmongers that lobsters can be obtained for between £6 and £12 depending upon size and a good lobster dish does not require to be the whole lobster. Half is fine if part of a well prepared main course. The normal mark up on main ingredients in restaurants is a factor of three or sometimes four. This means a half lobster would add £9 to £18 to the retail price (restaurant charging price) of the ingredients. Frankly similar to fillet steak so cost really is not an issue. The true issue is that the restaurateurs are too bone idle to bother to prepare and ensure a supply.
There is no proper seafood restaurant in Inverness despite it being surrounded by supplies of the finest seafood in the world. That is a business opportunity crying out to be exploited!
If the people of Inverness didn’t buy lobster or want lobster how come I can buy one for home any time I wish? Will no one put two and two together?
Finally, on the supply aspect, while visiting Elgol I was told by local fishermen that lobsters found in crab pots are often thrown back into the sea. It reminds me of the scene in Local Hero when the American sees the locals with their overflowing lobster pots. He is most impressed and asks if they eat them often. The men shake their heads woefully and say, “Na, too expensive!”
In Bude after being disappointed by the local restaurants, I bought a lobster from the Lansdown fishmonger, had them boil and crack it for me (our holiday cottage did not have those tools in their cutlery drawer) and I ate it as a salad with lettuce and bread. Lovely.
Fancy cooking lobster yourself? Well it is best to buy a cooked lobster unless you have a fish kettle. Even with a fish kettle be warned the water will not boil on a ceramic hob so a pre-cooked lobster is still best.
Remove the head. Cut the length of the body into halves. Remove the meat. Crack the claws and remove the meat from them, too.
I won’t suggest vegetables, but keep them simple. No highly spiced items. Maybe sliced new potatoes and asparagus?
Finely chop shallots and a little oil in a frying pan until sizzling. Maybe add some sweet peppers finely chopped, too. A few subtle herbs such as herbs de Provence. Once the peppers and shallots are sizzling add a glass of white wine and bring to the boil, throw in the lobster flesh, turning to cook both sides of each piece. After two or maximum three minutes (don’t overcook) remove from heat, stir in some double cream (this IS the low calorie version in case you wondered), then return to the heat until not quite boiling. Now serve the entire thing in deep pre-warmed plates, sprinkling with some dill and accompanying it with the potatoes and asparagus. For a dinner party you can put the cooked portion back into the half shell to look attractive. Wow, superb. Even better than battered cod and chips!
Chefs, I’m sure you can do better than that so why the hell don’t you do it on a regular basis for the long-suffering residents of the Highlands?
Tony Harmsworth, 22nd September 2015