Brrr, I'm sure we're all despising this seasonal bitterly cold spell, but then we're not plump, pink langoustines that thrive on burrowing in mud flats for five to 25 years in the depths of distinctly chilly all-year-round Scottish lochs.
Langoustines have long been massively underrated in the UK and seen as the poor cousin to lobster. The pejorative association with scampi – made from the tails of frozen langoustines too small to enjoy in their whole-body splendour and too often a composite of minced meat coated in breadcrumbs – hasn't done langoustine appreciation any favours.
Yet I maintain that in flavour and texture, surely what matters, langoustines offer a more delicate, yet intense, sophisticated sweetness that deserves far higher status. It seems outrageous, especially among so much somewhat jingoistic talk about buying and eating local, that langoustines are largely exported to France and Spain. But the tide is turning as discerning chefs are better appreciating their ravishing meaty, sweet assets.
I joined Andre Garrett and Fred Sirieix of the Michelin-starred Galvin at Windows, at London's Hilton Hotel, for a fact-finding mission to Loch Fyne, Scotland's longest loch, to discover more. We joined Donald Clark Jnr on his 21ft flat-decked boat to get a taste of what it's like to set the creels. Loch Fyne mid-morning had an other-worldly misty tranquillity surrounded by green rolling hills with gannets diving and even a fleeting glimpse of a seal. It was utterly still and deserted with no other boat in sight and astonishingly clear water.
"It doesn't get much better than this," Clark said. He's a relative newbie himself, initiated largely by Loch Fyne's renowned langoustine fisherman Ralph Newall. Clark also helps his brother run the George Hotel at Inverary, which has been in their family for six generations. "When I land at Loch Fyne's Inverary pier, my langoustines can be on the plates at The George in 10 minutes. You don't get fresher than that," he said.
As a single-operator langoustine fisherman, Clark's greatest enemy is the wind, as steering the boat and managing 200-plus creels or pots can be challenging. The "fleet" of creels are laid in sets or "bashers", a number of creels roped together on the loch bed. The catch can fluctuate wildly – though on a good day Clark can bring back up to 40kg.
While still on the boat, Clark immediately puts the langoustines (graded by size) into tubes that replicate their burrows and keeps them aerated and alive and in the water. Otherwise they deteriorate rapidly and their flesh will taste insipid. Dredger langoustine fishing not only damages the marine ecosystem by disrupting the loch bed but often means the langoustines remain in tubes at sea for several days and are mushy and tasteless. Properly fresh langoustines should have their legs and antennae intact and have almost jet-black eyes.
Suitably impressed and somewhat chilled, we return to Loch Fyne Oyster's original restaurant at Clachan, Cairndow, within a converted cow byre on the shore at the head of the loch. It is famously where Gordon Brown and John Prescott shared a kipper and a chat in the car-park as the dining room was full; Michael Caine was also made to queue.
Besides native oysters and rope-grown mussels, we enjoy an extraordinary feast of langoustines that Newall had caught that morning. "Wow, these are awesome, I've never seen such monsters," Garrett said, picking up the largest langoustine I'd ever set eyes on – an exceptional 25cm long and probably at least 250g in weight.
They smell incredibly freshly of the sea, veritably encapsulating ozone zinginess. These beauties have been cooked in plenty of well-salted water (allow one tablespoon of salt per litre and do not overcrowd the pan), brought to a rolling boil for three minutes.
Garrett advises that the best way to check they are done – overcooking is sacrilege – is to look at the meat under the tail, visible through the light membrane that covers it, which should have turned from pale, translucent pink to a definite white. Let the langoustines cool as quickly as possible in one layer on a tray but do not even think of putting them in cold water as they will suck it up and turn mushy. Serve simply with mayonnaise. Even with lobster crackers and picks they require considerable concentration to dissemble, all part of the pleasure before being rewarded with the succulent "meat".
Virginia Sumsion, whose uncle John Noble founded Loch Fyne Oysters, was raised on crustaceans, with Christmases invariably spent in the family's splendid, turreted Argyllshire estate at Ardkinglas, with great piles of langoustines alongside the family's oysters and oak-smoked salmon. She offers some sage langoustine etiquette.
"Start by pulling the tail away from the head and claws. Pinch the tail between finger and thumb to break the carapace and then pull it off the meat. Dip this in a little mayonnaise and devour. Now take a little mayonnaise on the spoon end of a pick (or the handle of a teaspoon), add a dash of Tabasco or squeeze of lemon if you wish and insert it into the head. Twist it around to scrape up all the delicious gunge. Most delicious of all, crack the claws, break off one end and suck out the delectable meat."
Back in Mayfair, Garrett has had his first delivery from Clark via Loch Fyne Oysters (it delivers live langoustines, flash-frozen, by online order to domestic customers, too). He is enthusing about how fantastic it is to envisage the beautiful waters of Loch Fyne every time he prepares langoustine and to know that he's propped up the bar at The George with Clark, who has personally undertaken to supply him.
Garrett shows me three very different langoustine treatments. An exquisitely light carpaccio of langoustine (cooked for 30 seconds in boiling water to make it easy to remove the shell) is sliced sashmi-master, tissue thin, served simply with lime zest (no juice as this would "cook" the flesh) and a mere slick of extra-virgin olive oil, a smidgen of sea salt and some cubes of cucumber and acidic Granny Smith apple. For a cheffy/celebratory flourish, Garrett finishes the dish with a scattering of coriander shoots and a teaspoonful of Naccarii sustainable Spanish caviar (available from kingsfinefood.co.uk) as "this really keeps the lovely sea flavours going".
"A bit of caramelisation differently enhances the inherent sweetness of the langoustine," Garrett says, as he cooks several more langoustines momentarily on each side on the plancha grill (they should still be slightly pink within). He reckons on getting through 150 to 200 langoustines a week at Galvin at Windows.
He serves langoustines a la plancha with an incredibly intense langoustine fumet made by roasting the shells and heads and adding vegetables, aromatics and cognac then deglazing furiously. Sublime. Finally, he conjures up a more wintry dish, sautéing Scottish girolle and oyster mushrooms with diced pumpkin to serve alongside plump langoustines cooked on the plancha with a frothy version of the fumet with butter and crème fraiche.
"Creating dishes that encapsulate the deep essence of such exceptional ingredients and evoke their natural landscape sums up my approach to cooking," Garrett said. "They deserve reverence." I concur, mentally making a note to order langoustines as the ultimate Christmas treat for my pescatarian son.
Andre Garrett's Langoustine Fumet
20 langoustine heads (or frozen bones, prawn bones etc), chopped
200ml extra-virgin olive oil
40g fennel bulb, chopped
40g shallots, peeled and chopped
2 cloves garlic, crushed
60g ripe tomatoes, chopped
20g tomato paste
50ml dry white wine
250ml good fish stock
1 bouquet garni (parsley stalks, thyme and a bay leaf )
Sprig of dried fennel
1 handful basil leaves and stalks
5 black peppercorns
Heat oil in a heavy large pan, sauté the chopped langoustine heads, add garlic and continue to sauté. Add the vegetables and tomatoes and continue to sauté for a few minutes.
Add the tomato purée and butter and caramelise ingredients together. Deglaze with the cognac, flame it, add the white wine and reduce to burn off the alcohol.
Add the stock, bouquet garni and fennel and cook for 30 minutes. Take off the heat and add the basil and peppercorns, infuse for 15 minutes, then pass through a sieve.
Drizzle over seared langoustines.