Chester Race Week. What more can a Galley Guy say? Lots of boats. Top notch race committee work. Full on competitive racing. Fantastic people. Too much wind. Not enough wind. Mega rain. Hot and steamy weather. Spectacular scenery. Fun parties. Lots of handshakes. Big-time hugs. And a non-stop supply of Goslings dark rum in a concoction called Dark & Stormies (note the use the plural form). Old friends. New friends. First-time stories. Stories that you may have heard once or twice before. And a hundred more great reasons to keep coming back to this annual regatta that dates back to 1856, reported to have been attended by 3,000 people who participated in a parade, amusements, and land races, as well as the sea races.
Chester, Nova Scotia is a jewel, located approximately 45 minutes south of Halifax on Mahone Bay. This most picturesque village, with its dress shops, artisan studios, and the usual touristy traps, also has many fine dining spots, including – for people who are connected (i.e., read “local knowledge”) – some fantastic rustic and often seasonal "by-the sea restaurants”. One afternoon in the cozy confines of the Seaside Shanty Restaurant (in Chester Basin), while devouring what might be considered the best seafood chowder ever with our new Chester friends, Jim and Dudley Grove, we got down to business. The business of lobster. The Galley Guys came to Chester for lobster. The Groves are Americans who summer here. Jim, who has vacationed here since he was a small lad offered to prepare a special lobster dinner in honour of the Galley Guys and a few tired and hungry Chester Race Week competitors.
Lobster cooking needs space; most boats aren't set up nor come equipped with the massive lobster pot required, so we prepared an on-shore feast. In Jim’s 60 or so years on the bay, he has had his share of lobster and, as is his custom, the meal preparation begins with a drive to meet his old buddy Danny Shatford, proprietor of Shatford’s Lobster Pound, just down the road in Hubbards, to personally select each specimen.
Our first meal plan dilemma centred around whether to use a linen table cloth or layered newspapers. I think, if my memory serves me well, it was over an excellent bowl of steamed mussels that we decided on linen and with this more elaborate setting, we upgraded to an even more elegant meal –Lobster Thermidor. The traditional steaming of lobster with all its hammering, cracking and ripping can be messy. Whereas thermidor, according to Jim, “takes four time as long to prepare but tastes twice as good”, and is eaten with a fork and a spoon along with some crusty fresh French bread. I should note here that when in Chester, stop by Julien’s Patisserie, Bakery and Cafe for some of this bread; it's nearly worth the trip itself.
The preparations that consumed a few hours included story-telling, cold beers and reminiscing of many years of East Coast feasts, all of which made the time fly by. Our ten fine-looking crustaceans were steamed for about nine minutes (just enough to set the meat) then cooled and split in half. I found that a strong chef’s knife was good for the belly cut of the lobster but I used kitchen shears to make a clean cut of the stronger top side of the shell. The tail meat was removed; the claws and knuckles were cracked and cleaned of their meat. The lobster meat was then placed in a pot with a cream sauce, shallots, butter, brandy and hot smoked paprika and simmered until thickened. Whatever didn’t fit in the shells for dinner was saved for a rich lobster stew the next day.
What makes lobster thermidor so special is the presentation. The sauce and lobster meat are put back into the cleaned, red half-shells and broiled for 3-4 minutes until just brown on top. All eyes at the table sparkled and glasses were raised as the chefs delivered the platter of lobsters to the table. The meal was complemented with fresh vegetables and greens from the local farmers market and several bottles of icy Veuve Clicquot.
The eight guest friends that gathered for the feast on this beautiful August night overlooking the Back Harbor raved about the evening’s fare, talked about the day’s racing, the next day's weather and how fortunate we all were to be in Chester, Nova Scotia on this starry night.
The eclectic gathering of diners could itself be worthy of a story: hosts Jim and Dudley summer in Chester and ply the waters of the Bahamas in the winter; Chief Race Judge Kathy Dyer and hubby, Colin Jacobs, the amazing volunteer and our race secretary from the Royal Hamilton Yacht Club; local racers Christie (Chester potter extraordinaire) and David (the furniture maker in Chester) Chaplin-Saunders; racer and Canadian Forces Air Force helicopter pilot Captain Eric Hill (and skipper of the Sail Training Vessel Tuna) along with his racer wife Jennifer, owner of the very stylish ladies fashion store in Chester; Katie Coleman Nicoll, Race Judge for Chester Race Week; and, lastly, me, Canadian Yachting's original Galley Guy!
I hope all those lucky enough to be out on Back Harbour on that pretty summer’s evening enjoying the bounty of the sea appreciated the sounds of our laughter and the tinkling of our glasses as they went skipping across the bay.
Active time: 50 minutes
Total time: 1 hour
2 (1 ½ lb.) live lobsters
1/2 stick (1/4 cup) unsalted butter
1/4 lb. mushrooms, trimmed and thinly sliced
1/2 teaspoon paprika
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
2 tablespoons medium-dry sherry
1 cup heavy cream, scalded
2 large egg yolks
Plunge lobsters headfirst into an 8-quart pot of boiling salted water*. Loosely cover pot and cook lobsters over moderately high heat 9 minutes from time they enter water, then transfer with tongs to sink to cool.
When lobsters are cool enough to handle, twist off claws and crack them, then remove meat. Halve lobsters lengthwise with kitchen shears, beginning from tail end, then remove tail meat, reserving shells. Cut all lobster meat into 1/4-inch pieces. Discard any remaining lobster innards, then rinse and dry shells.
Heat butter in a 2-quart heavy saucepan over moderate heat until foam subsides, then cook mushrooms, stirring, until liquid that mushrooms give off is evaporated and they begin to brown, about 5 minutes. Add lobster meat, paprika, salt, and pepper and reduce heat to low. Cook, shaking pan gently, 1 minute. Add 1 tablespoon Sherry and 1/2 cup hot cream and simmer 5 minutes.
Whisk together yolks and remaining tablespoon Sherry in a small bowl. Slowly pour remaining 1/2 cup hot cream into yolks, whisking constantly, and transfer to a small heavy saucepan. Cook custard over very low heat, whisking constantly, until it is slightly thickened and registers 160°F on an instant-read thermometer. Add custard to lobster mixture, stirring gently.
Arrange lobster shells, cut sides up, in a shallow baking pan and spoon lobster with some of sauce into shells. Broil lobsters 6 inches from heat until golden brown, 4 to 5 minutes. Serve remaining sauce on the side.
* When salting water for cooking, use 1 tablespoon salt for every 4 quarts water.
SOURCE: Gourmet, May 1941. Reprinted September 2001