I’m missing Maine and its luscious lobsters after holidaying in New England over the last fortnight. It took just a couple of days for me to become addicted to the bright red crustaceans!
During the vacation I enjoyed six large boiled lobster dishes as well as lobster rolls for lunch and an American-style lobster pizza.
‘Lobster and fries’ is like ‘fish and chips’ in England – eponymous and almost as cheap. So it’s no wonder I’ve been guzzling down these delicious sea creatures during my trip to Maine.
I’ve been back in England a mere 24 hours and already I’m suffering from ‘LWS’ or ‘lobster withdrawal syndrome’.
Lobster capital of the world
Maine is king when it comes to lobsters. It produces a staggering 90% of the USA’s lobsters.
That, of course, means that everywhere you go along Maine’s coast you’ll see a profusion of lobster pots, baskets and buoys.
There’s a huge cottage industry of lobstermen with their small fishing boats.
It’s all down to the state’s cool waters and rocky sea floor which lobsters love. They also adore the wealth of sea food to eat from mussels and crabs to starfish and sea urchins.
The Gulf of Maine seabed is home to ‘Homarus Americanus’, one of 30 species of clawed lobster in the world.
They’re fascinating creatures which are faster than you might think. They can travel up to four miles a day. If threatened, they can flip themselves backwards up to 25 feet with their strong tails!
Lobsters are naturally a dark green-brown colour but only turn bright red when they’re cooked. This is where I started to get interested in them.
Inside the lobster shack
My first lobster experience on this trip was just over the border in Massachusetts at Rockport, also renowned for its seafood.
It was here that I discovered the joys of the lobster shack – a simple affair where the setting is cheap ‘n cheerful but the food is divine.
Don’t be put off by the shacks’ basic appearance. They may not be fancy but locals tell me that this is where you’re guaranteed to get the best lobsters fresh from the adjacent quayside.
As you drive up the coast into Maine there are lobster shacks on every street corner and harbour front.
Although these are essentially no frills joints, there are plenty of culinary thrills as this is some of the best and freshest lobster you can taste on the planet.
There’s nothing better that a fresh lobster, boiled and then served straight from the pot in its shell. It must be one of the healthiest meals in terms of avoiding dodgy food hygiene because the live lobster is cooked and instantly served inside its shell.
When you arrive, there’s a chance to select your own live lobster from the salt water tanks where the live critters are swimming around.
I felt a bit guilty looking at them with their large ‘crusher’ claws held together with elastic bands to stop them biting.
At first, I found this experience a bit weird – we’ve become so far removed from food production that anything that isn’t served up in cling-film packs from a supermarket seems somehow primitive.
But here’s a chance to meet what you’re eating before it’s plunged into boiling water so you can eat it!
Seeing the live lobster dangling its claws in front of you and being weighed ready for your consumption seems cruel at first. But after a while, I found myself feeling strangely at one with nature.
It helps that the Maine lobster industry is well-regulated to prevent the depletion of the crustacean population. The lobsters cannot be taken for eating until they’re at least seven-years-old.
There’s also protection for pregnant females and young lobsters. They must also be a minimum and maximum size before they can be caught.
This may not appease vegans but at least it’s a transparent trade – and the lobsters do get to live into their mature years.
However, I’ve also read that without fishing or predation, lobsters can occasionally live up to 100 years and grow to a massive 40-50 pounds in weight!
Choosing the lobster is also a fine art.
They’re graded by size but in my opinion the mid-sized 1.5 pounders are both meaty and sweet, the best of the catch.
Posh restaurants tend to prepare the lobsters for you and often serve them stuffed in the shell with other seafood or with a Lobster Newburg sauce which contains cream, sherry, cognac and butter.
There’s also a difference between hard and soft-shelled lobsters.
The lobster molts (sheds) and regrows its shell every so often so a newer shell is softer. The soft variety, which have recently molted, are slightly sweeter if you like that style of meat.
My favourite lobster shack was Thurston’s at Bernard on Mount Desert Island which has the yummiest lobsters of all the places we visited.
I picked a 1.5 pounder from the tank. This was a hard shell variety jam-packed with succulent meat especially in the main claws and tail.
Totally delicious with a simple salad, butter, and bread roll, washed down with a glass of Chardonnay.
Overlooking Bass Harbor, you can sit on the terrace or deck watching the lobster boats go by. The whole sea is a mass of colourful lobster buoys to which nets are attached for catching the crustaceans.
Breaking the shell
Having got your order sorted at the lobster shack, breaking into the shell is a fine art.
The shack will issue you with full instructions plus a plastic bib so you don’t go home covered in lobster juice!
Lobster meat is healthy – it’s highly nutritious, rich in vitamins. packed with and Omega 3 fatty acids and low in cholesterol. It’s better for you than chicken or beef because its meat is virtually fat-free.
As a Maine lobster virgin, I was ready to battle the hard shell with the traditional lobster implements – the nutcracker ‘cruncher’ and the picker.
I’ve only ever eaten pre-prepared lobster in the UK (probably frozen) so having to crack open a fresh lobster was quite a challenge.
Put on the plastic bib provided by your host – you will need it because eating a whole lobster is a messy affair that requires using your fingers and special lobster cutlery.
The first thing is to identify which bit is which on the lobster.
The big shredder and crusher claws are the tasty bids but you need to work on them with the pincher to remove the finest, sweetest meat.
The trick is to break off the claws and grab the tastiest meat first. Then snap off the end tail and work the tail meat out from inside the shell. This is my favourite piece, full of succulent pink flesh.
The hairy legs and feet have only a small amount of meat in them so it’s best to break them off and suck the meat out a bit like using a straw. Probably not the best choice for a romantic date!
I’m least keen on the top section of the lobster – the ‘carapace’ or large backplate. I find this meat rather rough-textured and hairy.
If you’re hardcore, eat the green ‘gunk’ at the head of the carapace. It’s actually the lobster’s liver and pancreas – and it’s called tomalley.
This is regarded as a delicacy but many folk discard it, as I did the first time.
Later, I tried it properly – and started to get a taste for a small helping of it but I wasn’t 100% convinced! There can also be red eggs or roe inside part of the lobster.
This is called coral and many people also see this as a delicacy, a bit like caviar.
After a few more shack trips, I was becoming an expert of sorts – in cracking a lobster. But my final crustacean at Thurston’s proved to be tricky with its extra prickly claws and extremely knobbly body.
A heavy dollop of lobster juice which shot into my wine glass livened up the whole experience. I think that I also squirted the owner’s dog Daisy who was sitting nearby, but didn’t seem bothered by what is probably a regular experience!
I also cut my finger on one sharp section of claws which reminded me that even cooked lobsters can bite back. Ouch!
Maine’s obsession with lobsters is absolute so this isn’t perhaps the best culinary destination for vegetarians. But if you like seafood, this is the place for you!
During early August there’s the week-long Maine Lobster Festival in Rockland with cooking contests, parades and culinary delights.
One ice cream restaurant in Bar Harbor called Ben and Bill’s boasts Lobster Ice Cream which has become a cult favourite.
Despite my lobster cravings, even I thought this was a step too far!
Maggie’s in Bar Harbor boasts lobster crepes with French brandy sauce.
Sadly there was a power cut when I visited the harbour so I didn’t get the chance to try this highly recommended restaurant.
Personally, I’d rather eat my lobster without any sugary sweet concoctions!
Lobsters are omnipresent in Maine – wherever you go there are lobster signs, cuddly toys, crustacean imagery and gifts featuring the large, red creatures.
The paraphernalia of the lobster industry is everywhere you look from small boats to huts and steameries.
There are reckoned to be 6,000 lobstermen in Maine so it’s easy to spot them hauling up their baskets in most harbors and bays.
Each has his or her own particular territory, marked with their own distinctive, coloured buoys.
It’s hard to avoid the lobster in Maine – it’s the quintessential symbol of the state, emblazoned on everything from bumper plates to roadside signs.
Lobster shacks are like kebab shops in England – there’s one on every street or harbour front. The tell-tale sign is a large vat of steaming water!
Local newspapers and magazines are also jam-packed with lobster-related stories.
I spotted one Mount Desert Islander newspaper front page had a large photo story about the so-called “rarest of rare” lobsters – the yellow lobster.
It turns out that one was recently caught in Frenchman Bay in Acadia by the aptly named ship the Starfish Enterprise!
The yellow colouration only occurs in one in 30 million lobsters so you can imagine the local excitement. Fortunately for this lucky specimen, it was returned to the seabed rather than ending up on a dinner plate.
Super sea food
Lobster is a delicacy in the UK so eating this delicious crustacean is a complete treat. A bit like Roast Turkey or a three-stuffed game bird at Christmas.
In New England, it’s everyday food – and its super-cheap and available on tap.
Only a few UK restaurants feature the dish on their menu but generally they serve the frozen variety – and the lobsters tend to be very small and over-priced.
But Maine is very different. Here in New England you could live like a king and eat lobster every day. It’s the lobster kingdom of the world – and I want to come back for more.
Time to get cracking on planning my next trip to the ‘lobster coast’!
Tammy’s top tips – Maine’s lobsters
Maine is located about 90 minutes drive from Boston on the USA’s eastern seaboard.
Why not hire a car and take a leisurely drive up the coast to Boothbay Harbour or Mount Desert Island? Visit Maine has essential travel information about the area and where to stay.
The best lobster spots are seafront towns like Bar, Bass and Boothbay Harbors where you’ll find a mix of top end, mid-priced and cheaper restaurants serving fresh lobsters.
These towns are also great hubs in terms of places to stay overnight. Boothbay Harbor is a lively town with plentiful accommodation.
We stayed at the Tugboat Inn but there are several larger hotels such as Beach Cove Waterfront, Boothbay Harbor Inn and Cap ‘n’ Fish Waterfront.
If you’re staying in a self catering cottage, why not trying boiling your own lobsters. There are many outlets serving live lobsters including Parsons in Bar Harbor in Mount Desert Island.
Don’t forget that you’ll need to have a lobster pot and a recipe! Cooking time is approximately 15 minutes.
Watch this ‘how to cook a lobster’ video on YouTube from two quirky-looking experts from Maine!
Lobsters are best served with fries, salad, ‘pulled’ butter, corn on the cob or a plain bread roll. Keep it simple!