An unexpected fallout from global warming allows PETER FROST to endulge his palate with marine food that was once the sole preserve of the filthy rich.
Lobster used to be one of the most expensive and luxurious of fishy delights. It was the exclusive reserve only of those who had £30 million or so in a dodgy offshore account.
I have always enjoyed eating lobster, but only when I could get it for a good price from the person who had caught it. I have bought directly from the boats in places like Orkney, Suffolk, Pembrokeshire or even one of the ports on the south coast of Ireland. It has also been a real treat on holidays in New England or Normandy.
So imagine my surprise and delight when in New England on holiday last year I saw that McDonald’s was selling McLobster burgers for $8.99 — that’s about six quid in real money. What had happened in the world of expensive seafood?
I discovered that a glut of lobster in Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, Canada, and the US states of Maine and Massachusetts had led to plummeting prices and many fast food restaurant chains over there heavily promoting lobster dishes.
Rising sea temperatures mean lobsters are hatching earlier and growing faster.
Overfishing of cod in the Atlantic also means fewer of the predatory fish are eating baby lobsters.
The warmer weather is, of course, a result of climate change but you would be hard pushed to find anyone in the US Congress or Senate who’d admit that global warming really exists.
Whatever the climate change deniers say, the waters are getting warmer, and warmer waters make for more and therefore cheaper lobsters.
On the US and Canadian east coast markets the price has dropped to £2.80 a pound.
Sadly this has led to hard times for those who venture out in small fishing boats to lay their chains of lobster pots among the rocky coves of the beautiful North American Atlantic coast.
However, that particular cloud has a silver lining at least for us British seafood fans.
Some of that cheap lobster is now reaching the British market. Many high street and out-of-town supermarkets are selling frozen Canadian whole lobsters for anything between Lidl’s £4.99 to twice that at upmarket Waitrose.
Most of these lobsters, certainly those from Lidl, carry the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) seal of approval.
Always look for the MSC seal, which means you can tuck in without any qualms, at least about sustainability.
Even in hard times fisherfolk over there are determined to keep their local lobster fishery sustainable. If they catch a berried hen — a female carrying eggs — they cut a V-notch in her tail (below) and put her back. Other boats are not allowed to land a notched lobster.
As lobsters grow they moult each season, growing a new larger shell. It takes two moults for the notch to grow out, so the female has a chance to spawn for at least another two years.
There is a minimum size for a lobster to be caught. They have to be 3.25 inches (8cm) from the eye socket to where the tail begins. Any shorter, they go back. There is a maximum size too. If a lobster is more than five inches (12.5 cm) from eye to tail, it goes back as well.
These bigger lobsters are usually older males. Putting them back ensures there are lots of big, mature males scuttling about the seabed ready to breed with females.
There are some other questions of course. When I buy a lobster from a boat on a Suffolk quay and carry it off to grill on my campsite barbecue (below) I can count the food miles on the fingers of one hand. On the other hand these Canadian frozen beauties have travelled not far short of 3,000 food miles.
Another thing — should we not be buying local and encouraging our own inshore fishing fleets?
Of course we should, but I suspect that all that cheap lobster is actually introducing and encouraging a brand new band of customers who, once they have tried frozen imported lobster, will save their pennies to try some fresh British lobster at least for a special occasion.
In my opinion Canadian frozen lobster isn’t quite as good as our own British beasts. In fact the two species are different, although very closely related. Our home-grown lobsters are Homarus gammarus, whereas their Canadian cousins are Homarus americanus.
Perhaps it is just chauvinism but lobster fans far more expert than I think gammarus pips americanus when it comes to both texture and flavour — but if I were you I wouldn’t suggest that to Donald Trump.
Freezing certainly makes the flesh a little less tender, perhaps a bit chewier, but I still enjoy Canadian lobster with mayonnaise on a salad or, best of all, cooked in the shell with double cream, a pinch of English mustard and topped with a parmesan cheese crust in the classic Thermidor.
Quite often today any news about fishing is bad news: all too often overfishing, European quotas, unsustainable and exploitative fish farming in Third World countries, fishing methods that kill other species or discarding surplus catch make the headlines, and rightly so.
So it’s great to discover previously luxurious seafood unexpectedly arriving on our dinner plates at a price many more of us can now afford.
This article first appeared in the Morning Star 22 April 2016.