The king of the crustaceans, lobster is a delicacy that commands a very high price, with white, firm meat that is sweet and succulent.
Before it is cooked, lobster shell has a very dark colour, with tints that range from blue/green to red/purple - it gains its distinctive deep red brick colour only when it's cooked.
Generally speaking, the colder the waters in which the lobster was fished, the better the flavour. There are three main types: Canadian or American, which have round, very fleshy claws; European, fished around England, Scotland, Ireland, Brittany and Norway, which are considered to have the best flavour; and Slipper or Squat lobster, which live in warmer oceans, such as those surrounding Australia, where they are called 'bugs'. They have wide bodies and spindly legs, and aren't generally sold in Europe. Read more about fishing from sustainable stocks at Seafish.
All year round.
Choose the best
For practicality, a freshly cooked lobster, already split in half, cleaned and ready to eat, is the easiest option. Look for cooked lobster with a brightly coloured shell, and a tail that is tightly curled under the body - that means that it was live when it was cooked.
Buying a whole live lobster will ensure that the meat is the freshest it could possibly be, but it does mean that you will have to kill it - not a job for the squeamish. Look for lobsters that smell very fresh, and which are still lively when you pick them up - if you straighten out their tails, they should swiftly curve back under the body.
Never pick up a live lobster whose claws aren't bound with an elastic band - they're very powerful and and can do serious damage.
A halved, freshly cooked lobster is ready to eat - the only thing you might need to do is to crack open the claws (if they haven't been cracked already) using a hammer or a pair of lobster crackers, in order to access the claw meat.
If you have bought a live lobster, you should kill it just before cooking it. The most humane way to do this is to put it in the freezer for two hours, or put in a container and cover it with crushed ice for the same amount of time - this will render it unconscious. Then, having made sure that the lobster is no longer moving, push the tip of a large, sharp, heavy knife or a skewer through the centre of the cross on its head, and it's believed that this will kill it instantly.
Alternatively, put the chilled lobster in a large pan of cold, salted water and slowly bring it to the boil. It will die before the water boils. When the water has reached boiling point, lower the heat and simmer the lobster for around 15 minutes for the first 450g. Simmer for a further 10 minutes for each extra 450g, up to a maximum of 40 minutes. When the lobster is cooked, its shell will turn a deep brick red. Drain off the water and leave to cool.
To serve cooked lobster, first twist off the claws, then break into sections, crack the claw shell with a hammer or a pair of lobster crackers, then remove the flesh. Twist off the legs from the body, flatten with the back of a knife and then use a pick or a teaspoon handle to remove the flesh.
Next, split the lobster in half along its length by inserting a large, sharp knife at right angles to the edge of the head and press down firmly. The body and tail should split lengthways. Then cut through the head in the same way. You should now be able to separate the two halves. Remove and throw away the pale stomach sac, the gills and the dark intestinal thread that runs the length of the tail. The green liver (known as tomalley) is considered a delicacy. Remove the meat from the tail, and scrape out the soft flesh from the shell.
If any coral-coloured roe is present, it can be mixed with butter and the ground shells to make lobster butter, useful as a spread or to add to sauces. The shells can also be used to make stock.
Eat live lobsters on the day you buy then - until you use them they should be stored wrapped in damp newspaper or teatowel and kept in the fridge. Keep cooked lobster in its original packaging in the fridge, and eat as soon as possible.
Serve boiled lobster hot with melted butter or cold with mayonnaise; halved and grilled (10-12 minutes); in the classic French dish, lobster thermidor, with béchamel sauce; in simple pasta sauces.
Try langoustine, crab or crayfish.