There was a time in American fine dining when lobster was synonymous with luxury, along with filet mignon and waiters wearing white gloves. But now Maine lobster populations have exploded and consequently driven prices down. So the meat from these special sea insects doesn’t feel so special anymore. Various higher-end restaurants around the country are turning to langoustines or other fancier-named versions of the crustacean just to impress jaded diners, and that isn’t helping the cause of the poor Maine lobstermen who now can barely make ends meet.
Last summer we saw the rise of the Fourchu lobster, a type of Maine lobster harvested only in the summer months off of the cold waters of Nova Scotia — the coldness being key to making this lobster meat more firm and flavorful than typical Maine lobster. Dan Barber started serving it at Blue Hill at Stone Barns and chef Ben Pollinger started sourcing it at Oceana in New York City as well. Then Time magazine decided Fourchu lobsters were the Next Big Thing, and declared, “Lobsters, once luxe, verge on the déclassé.”
Then you have langoustines, a.k.a. Nephrops norvegicus, which live in European and Scandinavian waters and tend to be firmer and “brighter” tasting than Maine lobster, with a balance of salty and sweet. Paul Bartolotta, chef at Bartolotta Ristorante di Mare at the Wynn in Las Vegas, started importing live langoustines in the middle of the last decade, insisting that only the ones off the coast of Sicily taste right. L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon soon followed suit, with Robuchon adding langoustine to his menu there. In San Francisco, chef Joshua Skenes at the Michelin two-starred Saison serves raw langoustines imported live from Scotland on his ultraluxe menu, and he jokes, “If it ain’t Scottish iz crap!”
Meanwhile, all those poor Maine lobstermen are getting screwed. The wholesale price they’re getting these days is hovering just over three dollars a pound, and lobster catches in Maine are about three times what they were two decades ago. One theory is that efforts to recover from a collapse in the Maine lobster population five years ago, including the stringent release of egg-bearing females by lobster fisherman, account for the population swell, though other environmental factors could be to blame.
A recent newsletter from Canadian Marine Publications notes that lobster fishermen’s “break-even” was traditionally around four dollars a pound, and some of them are now just “tying up their boats” because they can’t make any money. So, as Canada’s Lobster Council (yes, they have one) catches up on this one, expect an even greater push to declare those Fourchu lobsters superior, and you can expect your Maine lobster rolls to keep getting cheaper.