“The Luck o’ the Lobster”- Lobsters and Irish Culture
The lobster fishery is one of the most traditional fisheries among Irish coastal communities & mainstay of many small-scale fishers around the Irish coast. The lobster fishery and the lobster itself are an intrinsic part of coastal Irish folklore and people’s livelihood, playing an important role in coastal cultural heritage as well as in the Irish cuisine. A delicacy in modern Irish cuisine, lobster (Irish name - Gliomaigh) was once considered the poor man's chicken. In Colonial times, lobster was plentiful and fed to pigs and goats as well as crushed up and used as fertilizers on the fields or as fish bait. It is said that only paupers ate it. In Ireland and the British Isles however, lobster features a great deal in recipes of upper-class households from the early 18th century onwards.
At one point, catching a large lobster was not an issue. These days the lobsters tend to be a lot smaller. But there are still plenty of lobsters around, and they form the basis for two dishes that have been popular for the last couple of centuries: The “Dublin Lawyer” and “Thackeray’s Lobster”.
The Dublin lawyer is a traditional Irish dish that's named after the city's wealthy lawyers and their love for whiskey. Although there are variations made with shrimp or crab, the dish is usually made with a combination of lobster and a sauce consisting of butter, whiskey, heavy cream, salt, and black pepper.
- 1 live lobster weighing about 2 1/4 pounds -cut in two the long way (down the center)
- Three heaping tablespoons butter
- 4 tablespoons Irish whiskey
- 3/4 cup heavy cream
- Salt and pepper to season
Kill the lobster, cut the shell open the long way, and remove all the meat from the body and claws: also, don't throw away the lobster's coral (unless you don't like it) -- it's used in this dish. Keep the shells for serving.
Cut the meat and coral into chunks. Heat the butter until foaming: then quickly sauté the lobster chunks in it until just cooked but not colored.
Warm the whiskey slightly: then pour it over the lobster and set fire to it. Add the cream, mix with the pan juices, and taste for seasoning. Put back into the shells and serve piping hot. Serves 2.
The other recipe is a little more complex, but still quick to make and unquestionably tasty. The popular magazine columnist and novelist William Makepeace Thackeray came over to Ireland in the mid-nineteenth century to tour the country and meet up with some literary connections. In his novel The Irish Sketch-Book he tells about how, along the way, he has dinner with some friends at a scenic restaurant in Salthill, south of Dublin. The star dish of the dinner is a lobster dish with a surprisingly spicy sauce, and Thackeray describes everything from the ingredients to the cooking method, to what to drink with the final result... and how to cope with the hangover the next morning.
- 1 very large lobster
- 1/2 lb butter
- 1 tablespoon mustard
- 1 tablespoon Ketchup (In Thackeray's time, this meant mushroom catsup: use that if you can get it)
- 1 cup vinegar (white wine vinegar, preferably)
- Cayenne pepper to taste
- 150ml / 3/4 cup sherry
(The amounts are approximate: the above measurement should be increased or decreased depending on the size of the lobster. You want about a cup of sauce per two people.)
"You take a lobster, about three feet long if possible, remove the shell, cut or break the flesh of the fish in pieces not too small. Someone else meanwhile makes a mixture of mustard, vinegar, catsup and lots of cayenne pepper. You then produce a machine called a "despatcher" which has a spirit lamp underneath it that is usually illuminated with whiskey." (He appears to be talking about a chafing dish with a pretty aggressive flame.) "The lobster, the sauce, and near half-a-pound of butter are placed in the despatcher, which is immediately closed. When boiling, the mixture is stirred up, the lobster being sure to heave about the pan in a convulsive manner, while it emits a remarkably rich and agreeable odour through the apartment. A glass and a half of sherry is now thrown into the pan, and the contents served out hot, and eaten by the company. Porter (i.e. stout) is commonly drunk, and whisky-punch afterwards, and the dish is fit for an emperor."
To restate the recipe in modern terms:
Clean and shell the lobster as indicated above. Mix the mustard, vinegar, “catsup” and cayenne to taste (some people might prefer to cut the sourness of the vinegar by substituting a half-and-half mixture of vinegar and dry white wine). Melt the butter in a large saucepan, saute the lobster briefly in it, not allowing it to color at all; then add the mustard/vinegar/cayenne mixture, mix well, cover, bring just to a boil, and then reduce the heat and allow to stew gently over medium heat for 15-20 minutes. Near the end of the cooking process, add the sherry and scrape the bottom of the cooking vessel to get any tasty bits into the sauce. Serve with boiled new potatoes, baked potatoes, or plain buttered rice.
Thackeray and his friends seem to have not eaten anything else with the dish, but they seem to have drunk a great deal; he remarks in the next paragraph of the excerpt, "N.B. - You are recommended not to hurry yourself in getting up the next morning and may take soda-water [for your hangover] with advantage. -- Probatum est.
To learn more about the history of the Lobster in Ireland, check out the links below:
History of the Irish Lobster - Trinity Centre for Environmental Humanities - Trinity College Dublin (tcd.ie)
Ireland: "Dublin Lawyer" and "Thackeray's Lobster" | European Cuisines