KENNEBUNK, Maine (AP) — When Maine’s lobsters start shedding their shells, restaurant owner Steve Kingston goes to the docks with a message for lobstermen: bring ’em to me.
“They definitely have a much saltier, brinier taste,” said Kingston, who runs a Kennebunk restaurant called The Clam Shack that goes through a half-ton of lobsters per day in the summer. “We’re a softshell house.”
Kingston is among a group of people in Maine’s lifeblood seafood industry trying to make the coming season the summer of shedders. The Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative, a group funded by the state’s lobster fishermen, dealers and processors, is launching a push to re-brand recently-molted lobsters as a regional treat that deserves more attention from chefs, restaurants and vacationing tourists.
Newly-molted lobsters, sometimes called “shedders” in New England, are crustaceans that have recently grown out of their old shells. Shedders tend to cost a little less than harder or “old shell” lobsters at restaurants and lobster pounds that sell both. The collaborative is rechristening shedders as “Maine new shell lobsters” and marketing them as a unique Maine treat — sweeter in flavor than hard shell lobsters, and easier to prepare because of their tender flesh.
The push is coming partially out of necessity as Maine’s lobster industry, by far the largest in the nation, deals with a glut of product on the market in recent years that has depressed prices somewhat. Maine’s lobster catch has topped 100 million pounds for four straight years. The price per pound at the dock has fallen from $3.47 from 2007 to 2010 to $3.11 since 2011, motivating some dealers to seek new markets for lobsters.
The lobster collaborative is working with high-end chefs in the hopes that they can serve as tastemakers who make soft-shell lobsters a sought-after menu item in New England and beyond, said Matt Jacobson, executive director of the collaborative. The collaborative will be meeting with chefs in New York City as part of the effort later this month.
The collaborative, which is funded by fees paid by lobster harvesters, processors and dealers, is putting its money where it hopes diners’ mouths are. It’s spending $1.5 million this year and will increase to $2.2 million per year every year through 2018 after previously spending much less annually.
“Folks will tell you the best lobsters they ever had was in Maine,” Jacobson said. “We think the reason for that is because they eat new shell and they don’t even know it.”
About 70 percent of the lobster landed in Maine is soft shell, and it tends to be a much higher percentage in the summer months when many lobsters are shedding, Jacobson said. The warm months are also when many lobsters reach legal size and lobstermen are at their busiest, satisfying the hungry crowds that venture to Maine’s coast every summer with lobster on their minds and butter on their chins.
Soft shell lobsters are most commonly prepared the same way as most hard-shells: boiled whole and served with melted butter. They differ from the also popular soft-shell crabs, which are more typically deep fried and served whole.
The softer lobsters have their detractors, such as those who gripe that they contain less meat than hard shell, and that water spills out of them when they’re cracked open. They also don’t travel as well as hard shell lobsters.
But South Freeport-based Barton Seaver, a Maine chef and director of the Sustainable Seafood and Health Initiative at the Center for Health and the Global Environment at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, swears by them. He said the lower price point of soft shell lobster can help democratize the notoriously expensive dish.
“It’s a charismatic, aspirational dish that people go out and seek,” Seaver said. “New shells offer a great product at a price point that I think really opens up the market to people who really want to have this experience.”
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