As sporting fishermen head north and west this August, sorting reels, rods and flies, I shall be fixing ropes and buoys and savouring last year’s bucket of rotten coley. For me, the pastime of plucking wild animals from the water is not done by flogging the surface of rivers and lakes, but by plumbing the kelp forest for the greatest monarch of the deep: the lobster.
My family was taught to fish lobsters during summers in the Hebrides by the island postmaster, Donald Kennedy. After closing the post office, he would set off each calm evening in a wooden boat with a puttering Seagull outboard motor. He laid just three creels, which he made himself of bent ash, nylon net and driftwood planks. Today in the Hebrides younger men go after lobsters with bank-loaned boats, electric winches and great strings of manufactured pots.
I like lobster fishing because it’s free and democratic. Anyone able to throw a bit of weighted net from a rock at low tide can take part. (You can use a shiny tin can as bait, although stinky fish are undoubtedly the best.) I like lobster fishing because it’s crafty—especially when you have to fish round the nooks and crannies of the rocks, as we do in the Hebrides to keep out of the way of the commercial boys. And I like it because when you pull a lobster pot up from the deep, it’s like opening a Christmas present. You watch the shifting shadows and the glimmer as the pot nears the surface and guess what might be inside—a piece of weed? A crab? Two crabs? Or what I really, really want—a lobster! Snapping, seething, blue and gold as a newly-tailored admiral.
Then, of course, there’s the eating of them. I’ve never had a problem with boiling lobsters to kill them: if you can steel yourself to do it, they die within a second or so. For years this was recommended by animal welfare groups, but now freezing them to sleep is preferred. I’ve seen a chef cut a live one in half to grill it—that is cruel and messy.
Most chefs fuss too much with lobsters. They should never need cheese sauces or flaming brandy to prettify them. Lobster thermidor—given a decent fresh lobster—is an absurdity: dressing up lamb as mutton. A Scottish lobster needs only brief boiling, 15 minutes at most, and then serving with mayonnaise and a tart salad: tomato, watercress, onion. Grilled, with a little butter on it, may be the finest end of all.
There is no shellfish as delicious as a west of Scotland lobster fresh from the sea, and their supply is plentiful. But the posers that compete on urban fishmongers’ slabs bring the reputation of homarus gammarus into disrepute. Chief villain is homarus americanus, shipped semi-frozen from Canada or Maine and thawed so it can twitch a little for the shopper—and then taste like soggy cotton wool. These are visibly different beasts: they have a greeny-orange tinge, and are common enough for Asda to put them on sale at £3 each. It is a tragedy—not just for the European lobster, but also those who make a living from them.
In this country, it is legal to put down a few pots for your personal use, and if you’re careful you won’t impinge on the territory of those for whom lobster fishing is a business. This is where the skill chiefly lies: manoeuvring your boat into cracks in the rocks and, with an eye to the tides, laying the pot on—Donald Kennedy’s tip—the spot where the weed meets the sand. As the pot comes over the side, you are lifting the curtain in a theatre: there may be a bare stage, or a busy ballet of velvet crabs, red crabs, starfish, the great thrashing limb of a conger eel. But nothing in that freeze-frame of underwater life is as thrilling as a lobster. My family love them for more than just the eating and we conserve them; we put back the under-sized, and the hens carrying their great loads of eggs between their legs (although I have taken a blackberry-sized pinch, now and then).
I was once out fishing with a friend who was caught by surprise when a lobster went for his thumb. Scared, he tossed it overboard. A moment later I found myself under the sea, swimming vainly after the disappearing treasure. The water was green, the lobster caught in a shaft of sunlight as it fell, and for a second I thought how lovely it would be to go with it all the way to the bottom. As in other great hunting sports, you develop a complex relationship with the quarry.
Please, appreciate them. Spurn the American interlopers and give due respect to our great armoured underwater beasts. Pay well for them and cook them simply. And if you do try and catch them, don’t come and do it where I do.