Dominic is a journalist and author whose books include biographies of Roman Abramovich, the owner of Chelsea FC, and the late billionaire financier Jimmy Goldsmith. He doesn’t cook much at home because his wife Romina is a chef, who has worked at three two-star Michelin restaurants and it’s not really worth trying to compete. On the plus side, she does consider his roast potatoes the finest she has ever eaten.
In these days post the MasterChef revolution, when even the most gormless twentysomething male appears to be able to stuff a poussin with rosemary and potato, the time when you could fob off dinner party guests with oven-ready concoctions from the superior supermarket chains are long gone. When one host of my acquaintance tried to dignify his use of Chicken Kiev from Marks and Spencer by quipping, “Lady Sieff’s in the kitchen tonight”, everyone was too appalled by his chutzpah to laugh.
Once embarked on the path of gastronomic self-improvement, however, you enter a world of spiraling culinary one-upmanship. In the frivolous circles in which I move it would once have been considered perfectly acceptable to offer a main course of fettucine with broccoli and gorgonzola. Now nothing but sea bream baked in sea salt will do.
And then there are the sensitivities of the guests to consider. Even if you do manage to assemble a party of six who are all meat-eaters that’s not the end of the problem. As Churchill might have put it, it’s not the end, not even the beginning of the end, merely the end of the beginning. I vividly recall offending one particular guest who came round when I was going through my Italian period soon after returning from a stint in Rome some years ago. I then considered Saltimbocca Alla Romana – veal fried in Marsala topped with ham and sage – the height of sophistication. But I had reckoned without the emerging concerns over the plight of veal calves. Foie gras is also probably not worth bothering with as it leads to the inevitable debate over the ethics of massaging the necks of geese to force down yet more corn in a bid to create the perfect liver.
And so when I decided to experiment by cooking lobster from live, mindful of the political incorrectness of the exercise, I decided to invite only family members who could be relied upon not to go ballistic as the wriggling shellfish was plunged into a pot of boiling water.
The first signs that I was entering hostile territory came when I called a branch of Waitrose to ask if they sold live lobsters. The reaction of the young woman at the other end varied from cold to glacial and I put down the phone having been made to feel like an axe murderer. After a number of other fruitless calls, I eventually found a posh fishmonger in South Kensington, La Maree, who sold me four 1.5lb specimens whose antennae waved reassuringly.
The next step was to come up with a recipe. Lobster Thermidor was the most obvious option. Unfortunately the version I found on the internet outlined a laborious six-phase process and conceded that making lobster Thermidor – named after the eleventh month of the French Revolutionary calendar – “is so time-consuming, complex and expensive that few restaurants serve it today”.
So I called my friend James, the Robert Carrier of SW11. He duly produced a recipe for curried lobster with lime and cucumber from Rick Stein. But James being James, the conversation moved on to cooking methods. He reckoned there were three basic options: first put the lobster in the freezer for a couple for hours to kill it and then boil; put it in a pot of cold water which is then brought to the boil (the idea being that it goes to sleep at some point and dies painlessly); or the nuclear option. He favoured method two.
Fortunately, my brother David arrived shortly afterwards, helpfully armed with an article culled from the website of the Shellfish Network – the League Against Cruel Sports of the crustacean world. As well as outlining the Network’s campaign to ban the “cruel” practice of boiling lobsters alive and its plan to boycott restaurants that did so, it gave a useful guide to the shortcomings of the various cooking methods. The key fact to bear in mind when cooking lobster is that its flesh begins to toughen from the moment of death. The accepted wisdom is that a lobster thrust into “ferociously boiling” water will die within 15 seconds. That’s what makes it such an attractive cooking method. The only alternative that comes close is to plunge a knife between the eyes but this requires such skill that in inexperienced hands the lobster is likely to die of lengthy asphyxiation. And the need to cook soon after or at the point of death rules out the freezing and gentle heating methods. So the nuclear option it would have to be.
By this time, however, the rest of my guests had arrived and the more sentimental members of the party had already affectionately christened two of the lobsters Nippy and Pinchy. (Pinchy being the name Homer Simpson gave to the lobster he – initially – couldn’t bring himself to cook.) At this point I had to admonish the backsliders by telling them the story of the food writer who, when he discovered that his children were becoming attached to two young pigs he was fattening up in the back yard, insisted they were named Lunch and Dinner.
And so the moment of truth arrived. As a metropolitan sap, who has never even stood next to anyone shooting a deer or pheasant, let alone done it myself, I was beginning to feel slightly nervous. Everyone seemed to be convinced that the moment the lobster hit the water it would begin to emit a fearsome screaming. By now an expert, I knew this to be an oldwives’ tale; that the noise would be due to air escaping under pressure from the carcass but that didn’t help much.
As I held Pinchy over the steaming cauldron was it my imagination or was he behaving like a desperate man approaching the scaffold, his claws – still tied tightly shut – waving more agitatedly than before? I steeled myself and plunged him into the “ferociously boiling” water. All signs of life departed within seconds. There was no unearthly squeal and a perceptible feeling of relief spread among everyone gathered around the hob.
Oh and Pinchy was delicious.