Lobster killer, qu’est-ce que c’est?

Can you feed nine people with one lobster?

I was faced with this first-world problem recently and I don’t mind telling you that after a lot of work and a fair bit of doubt the answer is yes, yes you can.

Lobster for nine

But more about that later.

And I have a rather momentous announcement to make, but you will have to wait for that too.

As I write this latest update from the Sheep’s Head Peninsula, I am sitting here looking out on the not-so-calm waters of Dunmanus Bay, the rain is pouring down, the wind is howling and to quote one local fisherman ‘the Bay is angry today’.

I tell you this because over the last few weeks we have had very un-January-like weather with sunny days and temperatures reminiscent of springtime. In fact, we have daffodils flowering in many fields. (Kilcrohane used to be famous for its early daffodils but that’s another story).

Just before Christmas, I decided that I would love to cook lobster as a treat for the festive season and with some of the best shellfish available anywhere just a few steps from my door I ordered one medium-sized fresh Dunmanus Bay Homarus gammarus or European lobster.

I collected the crustacean along with five litres of seawater from the Bay to cook it in and returned home to a house full of visitors who had arrived to ring in the New Year. (We seem to be getting a lot of visitors and friends calling since we moved to West Cork. I didn’t know we were so popular).

Prepared with seawater from Dunmanus Bay

Before you think that I am a terrible host and should have ordered more lobsters, let me explain; I didn’t know we were going to have nine people staying when I ordered my lobster and I actually got the very last one that our ‘shellfish guy’ had. And there is something of a recession going on, you know, even in West Cork.

Help in the kitchen preparing the lobster

Following a quick scan of the cookery bookshelf, I decided on lobster salad (thank you Rick Stein) and after a quick boil (alive), I removed the meat from the body and the claws and then set it aside. Next, I mixed spring onion, avocado, red pepper, olive oil and lemon juice together in a bowl and added the lobster when it had cooled down. After serving it all up on a bed of lettuce, I found that I had fed nine people with just one lobster. Very proud of myself, I sat back and awaited the oohs and aahs of amazement from all those gathered around the table.

Wonderful lobster salad

I’m still waiting.

The reaction to the miracle of the ‘feeding of the nine’ ranged from ‘this is interesting’ to ‘I’m not quite sure about this lobster’ and ‘Yeah, it was alright’ to my favourite ‘is it supposed to be tough?’

Not put off by the lack of enthusiasm from my guests, I waited until they had left, went out for a drive and arrived back with crabs. (Not an infestation, Brown Crabs – shellfish that is) Again, these lads were straight out of the Bay and very much alive.

Now, my confidence in cooking and dealing with these live beauties has been spurred on by that wonderful lobster salad (yes, wonderful) I had prepared for the now departed guests.

The lobster, however, when it was still very much alive was, unlike the crabs, a lot more resigned to its faith and went meekly to the pot. The crabs fought every inch of the way.

One of the two mad crabs

When I arrived to collect my two crustaceans, I could see that they were ready for a fight. As I approached their holding pot, I noticed through the bars that the inmates were restless. When the pot was opened, two sets of massive claws reached skywards snapping wildly in all directions. ‘At least the lobster had its claws secured with rubber bands; these lads look like they could do some serious damage if they got a hold of you,’ I thought as the angry shellfish were expertly removed from their prison and placed into a waiting box with some seaweed.

I put the box in the trunk of the car and headed for Harro and Gisi’s house as I had decided to give one crab to them as a thank you for all their help with the pheasants.

When I arrived at the house, I opened the trunk to find one of the crabs had climbed out of the box and was waiting in ambush. After a lot of coaxing, cursing and finally covering the mad crab with my coat, I managed to get it back into the box only to find its mate about to leap from the back of the car.

When I eventually got the crabs inside the house, Gisi lifted one out of the box and put it in a bowl so expertly and without any hesitation that I decided not to tell her how I had been standing outside her home for the last ten minutes fighting with the crabs and trying to get them back in the box without losing a finger or any other appendage.

Returning to Kilcrohane and after another struggle to get it in the pot I cooked the crab, removed the meat and now I need your help. What would you do with this lovely, flaky, sweet meat? I was thinking about a crab quiche but as one of my former editors used to say: ‘real men don’t eat quiche’.

Look at all that meat

Then, just when I thought I had gotten over my shellfish moment there was a knock on the door.

I opened it to find the ‘man with the gun’ without his gun but with a big smile on his face. ‘Wait until you see what I have for you, and get your camera ready’, he said as I hoped and prayed that it wasn’t another pheasant or duck or woodcock or brace of snipe or anything covered in feathers that needed to be gutted.

While I stood there (very pale and frightened) with my camera, he produced a bucket. ‘Have a look’, he said, still smiling as a strange scraping sound emanated from inside the big black plastic pail . ‘Oh, God, it’s not enough that I will have to clean out whatever’s in the bucket, now he wants me to kill it as well’, I thought as I peered over the lip of the container.

Staring back at me, with one giant claw open and pointed directly at my nose, was the biggest lobster I have ever seen. I was relieved, amazed and immediately hungry all at the same time. Now the only question was, did I have a pot big enough to hold this monster?

The lobster and his one massive claw

I finally found a casserole pot just big enough to take ‘Long-John Lobster’ (as I had decided to call him because of his single monster claw).

Long-John lobster ready to be thermidored

As Long John boiled away on the stove top, I learned another valuable lesson. Never, and I mean never, mention a longing for a certain food on the Peninsula. Let me give you an example; as we, ‘the man with the gun’ and I, watched the lobster bubble away in the pot, I casually mentioned that I would love some scallops.

Later that day, as I prepared Long John for a lobster thermidor dinner, there was another knock on the door.

Lobster thermidor

While I have no doubt that you know what’s coming next, let me tell you that I have never seen scallops so big or so fresh. There stood ‘the man with the gun’ armed with another bucket, this time containing 12 huge scallops.

Be careful what you wish for - scallops fresh from the Bay

In our freezer, at this very moment, we have crabmeat, a pheasant and 12 scallops. Sounds like a dinner party in the making, if you ask me; all local food from the Sheep’s Head. Now all I need is some Durrus cheese and local honey and I can send out the invitations.

Oh, as for the momentous news, you will all be delighted to know that I have caught my first fish of 2012. I hope there will be many more.

First fish of 2012 - a nice pollock off the rocks in Dunmanus Bay


The Donkey in the fog

There are times when I know that no matter how much I try I will not be able to describe or do justice to an event I have been lucky enough to witness.

This is one of those times and I am fighting to find the right words to give you just a sense of what I experienced this morning.

However, if you bear with me, I will try to share exactly what happened.

One of the first things I noticed when we moved to Kilcrohane was just what an important part the weather plays in everyday life here. While we have yet to have frost or snow, we did have storm-force winds and some very hard rain over the last few weeks.

This morning all that was just a distant memory as I awoke to blue skies, calm water in Dunmanus Bay and a light breeze. The birds were singing, the sheep stood sunning themselves in the fields and it was turning out to be one of those days when you find yourself in the right place at the right time.

I set off out into this picturesque scene armed with my camera and a mission to scout out good fishing locations for later on in the season.

For fresh fish, follow the sign

A short distance from the house is Dooneen Pier and the section of the Sheep’s Head Way called the ‘Fisherman’s path’. This, I decided, would be an excellent place to start my quest for my own piece of angling heaven.

As I made my way along the path, which ran along a cliff’s edge, I could see gannets diving into the sea far below. Always a good sign for any would-be fisherman.

I made my way to the edge of the cliff. Far below, in fact out of sight, I could hear the waves crashing on the rocks. High on the cliff, as close as I could go to the edge, I found a flat rock and sat there taking in the glorious scene before me.

Blue skies over Dunmanus Bay

In the distance I could see the mouth of Dunmanus Bay with the Mizen and Sheep’s Head peninsulas facing the Atlantic Ocean like two pillars of a gate leading into a vast turquoise field. Everything was calm; I could feel the warm sun on my face as I sat like a lizard warming myself on my rock. The only sounds were the occasional wave breaking on the jagged rocks, the cry of a lone gull, and the splash of the gannets diving into the deep water far below.

Every now and again there was a sound like a bass drum echoing from depths as the water gushed into one of the many caves at the base of the cliff.

I found my attention drawn back to the mouth of the Bay. As I watched, it looked like someone had switched on a smoke machine. There, just like a slow set at an eighties disco, was a cloud of what looked like white smoke making its way between the two peninsulas.

Now the ‘smoke’ was not making its way along the headlands or spreading out over the land. It was confined to the bay and was steadily making its way toward me like a scene from that horror movie ‘The Fog’.

Here comes the fog

From my vantage point, I could see the fog moving slowly down the Bay; I could also still see both peninsula heads. The fog bank was about 12 meters (40 feet) high and getting closer all the time. It was like watching grains of sand filling one end of an egg timer.

I also noticed that it was very quiet; very, very quiet. Even the waves seemed to have stopped. The gulls and the gannets were gone. As I looked behind me, wondering if I should leave as well, I saw the sheep, that had been happily munching the grass and enjoying the warm sun when I arrived, were now all heading towards the far end of the field. Some of the sheep were walking but more had decided to run. ‘Time to go’, I thought.

As I stood up to make my way back, the temperature suddenly dropped. High above, I watched as the fog reached the edge of the cliff and seemed to just float there above the now no longer visible water. Then it began to climb up the cliff wall.

Time to leave?

I made my way back to the car, chased by this wall of white fog. I began to imagine giving directions to the rescue services trying to find me as I lay freezing to death surrounded by fog. ‘Yeah, I’m over by the big rock, just past the two sheep on the cliff. Don’t go too far left, there’s a bit of a drop there’.

Then, as I made my way out of the gloom, I was confronted by a few donkeys who unlike the sheep were not going to let a bit of fog upset their morning. They looked at me. I looked at them and then the fog arrived and we all headed towards what I hoped was the quickest way to my car. I don’t know where the donkeys were going but they seemed to be heading towards the cliff edge. I didn’t hear any splashes so I can only assume they’re ok.

Foggy donkey

Back at the car, I watched as the fog bank made its way deeper into Dunmanus Bay towards Durrus. Then, almost as soon as it had arrived, it was gone and there I was, blue sky above me, sun on my face and the sound of the waves on the rocks once more in the distance.

I decided that I didn’t need the rescue services after all. Although it was touch and go there for a while, for both the donkeys and I.

Before the fog



The fog arrives

Duck and cover

The man with the gun came calling again.

At first I thought he was just wishing us all a Merry Christmas but then he produced a freshly-shot duck and I could feel the hairs on the back of my neck stand up in pure terror.

He obviously doesn’t read my blog.

As he handed me the duck (still warm by the way), I was transported back to the greenhouse and I swear I could smell (and taste) the pheasants as we got them ready for the pot only a few weeks ago. When I say we, most of you will know that I should say ‘the women’ as they did most (all) of the dirty work.

I was once again faced with the prospect of plucking and cleaning out a game bird. It’s amazing how quickly you can react when faced with an unpleasant task. ‘Wow’, I said trying not to throw up. ‘I love duck, thank you so much. Come in and have some tea’. All the time my mind was racing. ‘Oh God, I can’t go through all that again. Where am I going to put it?’, I thought as I filled the kettle.

‘Shot him a couple of minutes ago just down by Farranamanagh Lake,’ our friendly gunman said as he took a seat at the kitchen table. ‘Boil him up for a while before you roast him because he’s been feeding in salt water and there may be a “fishy” taste off him’, he warned.

Farranamanagh Lake where our duck was shot

‘I don’t care how “fishy” he tastes’, I thought, ‘at the moment I don’t think I’m going to make it as far as cooking the bloody duck never mind tasting it. Maybe I could just get rid of it when no one is looking? But no I can’t do that; if you shoot game you must eat it, that’s my philosophy.’

I decided to man-up and do what I should have done all those weeks ago with the pheasants. After all, am I not a real man now that I live on a Peninsula in West Cork? Taking a deep breath, I took the duck in both hands and… I blamed my daughter and in-laws for the fact that I would be unable to deal with the duck at that moment.

‘My daughter is a very picky eater and we have my mother- and father-in-law staying with us and I wouldn’t like to put them off their food. You see, I have nowhere that I can pluck and clean out the duck without them being aware of it, and my back is playing up a bit, and I think I’m coming down with flu, and our freezer is full too, so if you would like to keep the duck, and a lovely specimen he is, please do and I hope you enjoy it. You’re very good to think of me, maybe next time when everybody is out and my back is a bit better…?’, I pleaded as my gunman gave me a knowing smile.

‘I’ll clean him out for you no problem’, he said as he poured himself some more tea. ‘Have him back to you later today and you can cook him tomorrow’, he continued as I felt the dizziness subsiding.

Farranamanagh Lake from the little stone jetty

So later that day, I was presented with an oven-ready duck and I am not ashamed to say that I felt no less a ‘real man’ when I dropped it in the pot with celery, garlic, onion and bay leaves. I decided to boil the bird for at least ten minutes before finishing it off in the oven. Now, the first thing to note is that a wild duck is a lot smaller than your typical farmyard fowl. There was, I reckoned, just enough meat on our duck to feed one person. While boiling the duck, I noticed a strange smell; it was a sweet cloying odour somewhere between a seashore when the tide has gone out and burning plastic or rubber.

I continued with my plan to boil and roast the bird; when I removed it from the oven the smell seemed to have gotten stronger. I decided to put all this to one side; after all, I love duck and as there wasn’t very much to go around I thought I would make some duck burritos using floury tortillas filled with lettuce and tomatoes. However, as I cut into the breast of the duck the odour of salty stones and seaweed got stronger. I tasted a piece.

Bacon, in floury tortillas filled with lettuce and tomatoes and a dollop of mayo is probably the tastiest suppertime treat you can have with a nice strong cup of tea … and all the windows open letting in lots of fresh West Cork air on a cold December night.

As for the duck, let’s just say that Leo our cat didn’t seem to like it either.

After a stormy night over Dunmanus bay