Saturday, 11 June 2011
Swedish Lobster Safari – A Wild Lobster Hunt
“Would you be interested in going on a lobster safari, Jonathan?”
This is probably the best question I’ve ever been asked in my whole life. It’s the sort of question that makes you want to walk out onto the street and hug people. The sort of question that makes you want to give every penny to charity. The sort of question that is overflowing with unfettered positivity.
I accepted the invitation from the lovely people at the West Coast of Sweden Tourism board quicker than you could say “hummer-bra”. Having enjoyed my experience on a Mussel Safari back in the Autumn along the idyllic West Coast, I wasn’t going to miss out.
After some cursory research and some energetic emailing it emerged that Sweden and Norway are renowned for being home to some of the world’s tastiest lobsters. Apparently the cold, deep waters encourage lobsters to grow at a glacial pace which makes them more flavoursome. The icy winter conditions and strict laws forbidding fishing for lobster during the summer spawning months makes them harder to catch. Given that food tastes better when it is more scarce, more expensive and when you have gone to more effort to catch it, it’s no surprise that Scandinavian lobster is so tasty.
We drove up the West Coast Highway to Strömstad where we caught a ferry to South Koster Island with the warning that the chilly April waters would mean that we would be lucky to actually catch any lobsters ourselves. The coastal scenery, as ever, was staggeringly beautiful. It’s worth visiting whether you are on a “Wild Lobster Chase” or not. Remote. Craggy. Elegiac. And a balance of soft and harsh textures that makes you realise why Scandinavians make such frustratingly natural designers. It’s not surprising that the Koster Islands, just a few miles from Norway, are both a protected nature reserve and a mecca for red and blue flagged yachts.
We arrived at our hotel in Ekenäs, to find rooms looking out over the mackerel hued sea and a small flotilla of charming staff who answered our excited cascade of questions about lobsters and ushered us towards some lunch to prepare ourselves for the high seas.
A very tender, but thin, beef stew with onions and potatoes was transformed by the addition of crème fraîche and gherkins. A rustic balance of creaminess, acidity, crunch, freshness and beefy depth.
More refined, although terribly photographed, was a “cooked to perfection” trout with a creamy roe sauce and braised greens. My fears that the trout had been overcooked couldn’t have been more wrong. The flesh Dita-von-Teesed away from the bone and the roe sauce added to the sensuality as it burst saltily in the mouth. Meanwhile, the cucumber and braised beans were so good that I’m going to insist on cucumber being cooked this way from now on.
With our loins girdled and our sea legs filled with ballast, we ventured down to the harbour to meet our Lobster Safari Ranger. Johan was everything you’ve imagined a Swedish captain to be: larger than life, grizzly, weathered, bearded and blessed with a sense of humour that twinkled brighter than a Catherine wheel.
With our expectations of catching lobsters set very low, we chugged out to inspect Johan’s 14 creels that had only been in the water for 3 days. The water was still so cold that areas had only just thawed, so the lobsters were still in hiding and not likely to have made the mistake of falling into our mackerel baited trap.
Johan and his assistant hauled in the first few pots, but to no avail. They weren’t just devoid of lobsters – they weren’t even filling up with seaweed! Sadly the story was no different than when we took over. I managed to net a starfish, but other than that it was more a case of checking to see if the pots were still in one piece.
Johan assured us that despite our pitiful haul, we’d still be in for a lobster treat for dinner. And with that reassuring message reverberating in our minds, I took over the wheel and guided us around the islands to enjoy the amazing scenery as Johan regaled us with tales about the fierce rivalry between North and South Koster. The animosity between the islands is so strong that Johan’s father from the south island, refused to step foot on the northerly rival which is seen as more developed despite having a population of no more than a few hundred. The islands’ history and folklore is almost entirely dominated by fishing.
We heard tales of one fisherman accidentally catching 10 tonnes of dogfish; of a crazy Scottish man who had invented a novel way to catch langoustine who is now farming snails for the Asian market; of prawns that glow in the dark; of mackerel schools that are denser than concrete; and of a lobster heist that saw 1million SEKs worth of shellfish being stolen from local creels that could become the plot for Ocean’s 14.
As we made our way back to the hotel’s pontoon, we marveled at the views which almost made up for the lack of lobster…
Craggy seafront of South Koster
Sea view towards South Koster
Classic harbour huts on North Koster Island
The chain ferry linking North and South Koster
Trio of houses in sunshine as we left the harbour
Trio of houses under cloud cover as we returned
Trio of houses in twilight before we went for dinner
The early April light licked the shores with golden beams one minute and cursed it with withering coldness the next. Whilst we hadn’t caught any lobsters, we had enjoyed a magical boat ride and got an exhilarating taste of what life is like on the Koster Islands. But as we prepared for dinner we worried that we’d be punished for our poor fishing performance by taking lobster off the menu. Luckily, our fears were unfounded. Johan had responded to our poor catch not by scuttling his boat or making us walk the plank, but by nabbing a couple of lobsters off a friendly fisherman.
To our delight our meal started with a magnificent cold boiled lobster from less than a mile away. Served with aioli and mayonnaise it was everything you want from the king of the sea. Rich, tender and imbued with the sort of salty depth that makes you want to regurgitate each mouthful to enjoy it all over again.
Next came a second lobster that had been removed from its armour, poached in butter and anointed with a sauce made reduced lobster bisque. It came with a piece of soft claw meat, some lavishly buttery mash and a scattering of beans. It was every bit as decadent to eat as it looks and sounds. The only way it could have tasted better would have been if we had caught them ourselves.
As we finished the evening with lashings of rum and whisky, we reflected on our lobster odyssey and drank our final dram with a warm feeling of deep satisfaction. If Carlsberg were to offer fishing trips, this is how they’d do them.
This trip took place on the 9th April, towards the end of the lobster season which finished on the last day of April. It was set up and funded by the wonderfully generous people at the West Coast of Sweden Tourist Board.
The lobster safari is part of a series of fishing safaris that they organise up and down the West Coast. They also do oyster, mussel, prawn and crayfish safaris which you can find out about here. The lobster season starts again in September.