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March 30, 2010

Nova Scotia’s Perfect Lobster

The finest lobsters in the world come from the cold coastal waters off the town of Fourchu, on Nova Scotia’s Cape Breton Island. At least that’s what the locals—most of whom make a living catching and selling the creatures—claim. And if the determination and savvy of one resourceful woman have anything to do with it, this densely meaty crustacean might well become the next Wagyu beef, Chilean sea bass, or jamón ibérico. Twenty years ago no one had heard of these now well-known name-brand delicacies, either.

That woman is Dorothy Cann Hamilton, the founder and CEO of New York’s French Culinary Institute and a descendant of a line of Fourchu natives that stretches back to 1760, when her Scottish forebears wrested this land from the French colonists who settled it. A longtime Fourchu booster, Cann Hamilton recently realized that she could do her ancestral home a great service by inducing top New York restaurants to serve Fourchu lobster at a premium price. And so it happened that on a weekend last June I joined Cann Hamilton and a group of New York star chefs to meet this sublime shellfish on its home surf.

Though you may never have been to Nova Scotia, let alone Cape Breton Island, you’ve likely already been introduced to Fourchu. Early in the film Jaws, as the harbormaster pages through a copy of the February 1968 issue of National Geographic, he comes across an article entitled “Sharks: Wolves of the Sea” and an accompanying illustration of a great white biting into a dinghy as two terrified seamen quake with fear. This might seem like the stuff of fiction, but that encounter really happened, just outside Fourchu in 1953, the only documented instance of a great white attacking a boat.

On the evening of our arrival, Kevin Burns, the nephew of the fisherman who drowned in the incident, retold the tale. “My uncle, Johnny Dan Burns, was out shiftin’ traps,” he said. “He was with Johnny Willie MacLeod and they was in a rowboat when out of the blue, a great white rammed her. Bit a hole in the boat and knocked my uncle out. Later they found a long shark tooth in the planking.”

Colorful stories like this sad last fishing trip of Johnny Dan Burns would not only help establish the identity of the Fourchu lobster but could also go a long way toward encouraging sophisticated urbanites to pay top dollar for the stuff in fine restaurants. Similar narratives help sell Burgundy wine, as well as Kentucky ham and Berkshire pork.

But while such lyrical lore might pique diners’ interest, launching a brand entails much more than just giving something a name and telling its story. Before the public will embrace a new ingredient, that product has to prove its inherent quality. The taste must live up to the tale. And in the case of the Fourchu lobster, that taste depends on two factors: geography and bureaucracy.

First the geography. Fourchu sits straight in the path of frigid currents that dive down from the Arctic Ocean, and colder water means firmer, fuller-flavored seafood. Just think about the difference between a soft, sweetish Gulf Coast oyster from the warm Louisiana shallows and a briny, complex-tasting, firm-fleshed Belon from the chilly North Atlantic. “Because of the colder water, our lobsters are slower growing,” says Gordon MacDonald, one of Fourchu’s leading fishermen, who also holds a master’s degree in organic chemistry. “Their biological processes slow down. They become heartier with much higher blood protein, which may explain the different taste.”

As for the bureaucratic part of the equation, “We’re hitting the lobsters at the right point in their life cycle,” says Alan Reeves, a crustacean technician for the Canadian government. In Fourchu, lobster season arrives in late May, just before these crustaceans molt, shedding their shells to grow roomier garb. This is when the meat inside those shells is at its tastiest and firmest. Freshly molted lobsters, in contrast, have a taste and texture like soft-shell crabs; the flesh is flabbier, and though they may be sweeter, they are decidedly less flavorful.

MacDonald provided our lobster orientation on the evening of our arrival, when Cann Hamilton prepared lobster chowder and Atlantic salmon. Among the New York culinary contingent were chef-restaurateurs Jonathan Waxman and Anne Burrell, as well as Dan Barber, the chef and owner of Blue Hill in the West Village and its upstate outpost at the nonprofit Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture. Three later arrivals, delayed by a flat tire, were David Pasternak, who runs Esca; Floyd Cardoz, the innovative interpreter of Indian-inspired cuisine at Tabla and Bread Bar; and Tuscan transplant Cesare Casella, whose new project, Salumeria Rosi, on the Upper West Side, has been getting recent attention. After our early dinner the road-weary chefs retired immediately. We had a 9 a.m. rendezvous with MacDonald.

This, as it turned out, was rather late for the local lobstering time clock. When his boat, the Wendy Marie II, picked us up, MacDonald and his two-man crew had been out since 4 a.m.

We motored out of the harbor, and MacDonald set a direct course for his traplines, just offshore. In short, efficient order, the crew winched in two dozen cages from a depth of 30 to 50 feet. The rocky bottom, we learned, is an ideal lobster habitat. It’s full of nooks and crannies where these creatures can hide from predators, and it teems with sea urchins and rock crabs, the lobsters’ favorites.

Crewman John Martell pulled a lobster from the cage and prodded it, and the crustacean responded with a kung-fu display of claw snapping. “The big claw,” Martell said, “is called a crusher. It can smash through a clamshell or break your finger. The other, even sharper, can cut right through you.” Martell measured the lobster with a pair of calipers, making sure it met the government-mandated minimum size. Under current rules, the carapace—from the head to the beginning of the tail—must be at least 82.5 millimeters, which means the lobster is about eight years old. This strictly enforced limit helps explain why the Fourchu lobster population has remained robust while other species, like these same waters’ once plentiful but now overfished cod, have diminished.

With each lobster that passed the size test, Martell and his fellow lobsterman Neil Tonet secured its claws with rubber bands and tossed it in a plastic tub. And as the traps were emptied, the crew placed a bag of chopped-up mackerel—a particularly stinky and effective bait—inside.

The day’s 600 pounds were average for the season (though it varies widely from year to year), and at a market price of $5.25 per pound, it represented a tidy, if hard-earned, profit. There is little room for badly set traps or uncooperative weather if the fishermen hope to earn a living and pay off the cost of one of the town’s lobstering licenses. Only a few are available, and they rarely come on the market. When they do, these days they can fetch upwards of $300,000.

We brought our catch back to land for a lobster boil and hootenanny at the Fourchu Community Center later that night. Cann Hamilton had invited the whole town—all 47 residents—as well as others from nearby. As we gathered in her garage, sipping beers, Malcolm MacDonald, Gordon’s uncle, sat in a rocker and watched the comings and goings. Having once let a chef commit what he felt was a sacrilege—undercooking lobsters—the elder MacDonald was not about to allow the same mistake. “You have to boil a lobster twenty minutes,” he instructed. “Any less and it’s kind of slimy.”

The faces of the assembled chefs fell in unison. Common wisdom among gourmets is that it takes only 10 to 12 minutes to render the meat tender and juicy. But 75-year-old MacDonald is the first citizen of Fourchu, so his word, while not exactly law, commands respect from visitors.

We consoled ourselves with more beer and more cooking while MacDonald spoke almost mystically about the lobsters’ seasonal trek to and from deeper waters. This is a man whose connection to nature is both deep and poetic. “They are a mystery, those lobsters,” he said. “Even with all that we know, we still don’t know a lot about what goes on under the sea.”

As for those evergreen branches that the lobstermen had thrown in the traps earlier in the day? “It was juniper,” said MacDonald. “The old-time traps were made of the stuff, and I think that something in that scent attracted lobsters. So now some fishermen put a branch in the steel traps.”

“Sometimes,” MacDonald then confessed, taking his thought to its logical conclusion, “I do like to splash a little gin on the bait.”

By 5 p.m. dinner was ready, and we ferried the lobsters down to the meeting hall, a utilitarian barn of a building that looked like an Elks Club or American Legion in any small town. The parking lot was full; the entire village—man, woman, child—had turned out.

On the stage a local band of fiddlers launched into a round of Highland tunes. Later, keyboardist Seamus MacNeil, whose fame extends up and down Cape Breton Island, accompanied his daughter, Monica, a schoolteacher and mother of three, as she poured out ancient Celtic melodies on her soprano saxophone. The old-timers square-danced with the energy of teenagers until, by eight o’clock, the party was over. It was way past bedtime for the lobstermen of Fourchu.

As a party it was memorable, but as the chefs feared, the lobsters were overcooked. We left the meeting hall determined to prepare some up our own way and asked Gordon MacDonald if we could grab a few more of the live ones that were stored in cages near his boat.

We returned to Cann Hamilton’s with a half dozen. Barber separated the tails from the claws, boiling the former for six minutes and the latter for two and a half. The difference from a classic Maine lobster was clear and unmistakable, much like the difference between a California Chardonnay and a Montrachet; where American Chard has one note, a buttery sweetness, the Burgundian wine is complex, mineralized.

As Barber said, “If it’s sweetness you’re after, I think there are lobsters, especially softer shells from Maine, that will deliver, but maybe that’s not what we should be looking for here. The Fourchus have this rich, meaty sea flavor that is also sweet enough.”

Waxman put it more bluntly: “With a lot of lobsters there’s a sweetness I dislike. But these boys had balls. They really were toothsome and delicious.”

So the Fourchu lobsters passed the palate challenge with these experts, but does that mean we’ll soon see them on New York menus alongside Périgord truffles and Alaskan king crab? That all depends on how big the market is and how soon Cann Hamilton and the townsfolk of Fourchu can work out the logistics and the costs of transporting their catch over a thousand miles south to Manhattan.

To be sure, they will be expensive, but still they are great lobsters with a great story, and in Dorothy Cann Hamilton they have a formidable champion. Lobster is, for most of us any-way, a special-event kind of meal, so it could very well happen that the opportunity to choose these Canadian beasts over less pedigreed ones will cause our collective gourmet gene to kick right in.

I can see the bumper sticker now: “Fourchu or forget it!”

Finding Fourchu

It’s not going to be easy. When we asked Dorothy Cann Hamilton if she could recommend a local restaurant, specifically one for lobster, she said there wasn’t much to speak of. But for the curious and the intrepid, a trip to the area might still be tempting. Lobster season in Fourchu is in the rather foggy months of June and July, and the best way to reach the town is to fly into Halifax. Air Canada, American Airlines, Continental, United, and Delta all go there. From Halifax it’s a five-hour drive to Fourchu or an hour-long flight on Air Canada to Sydney, which is about an hour and a half from Fourchu. After arriving a car is a must. All the major companies rent at the Halifax airport, and Avis, Budget, and National are at the airport in Sydney, too. The simple, modern 152-room Delta Sydney ($170–$190; 300 Esplanade St.; 902-562-7500; deltahotels.com) is both the nicest hotel around and the one that’s closest to Fourchu. It’s a 20-minute drive from the Sydney airport and sits on the city’s waterfront. But for Fourchu lobsters closer to home, Bedford, Nova Scotia–based Clearwater Seafoods (877-567-1117) ships fresh live ones via overnight UPS to the States (except for Alaska and Hawaii) from late May to August. Customers must specify that they want Fourchu lobsters when they call. Prices vary from week to week and season to season, but last year’s average was $20 for a 1.25- to 1.5-pound lobster. Shipping costs depend on location, of course, with the price of a four-lobster package being around $90 to New York or Los Angeles.