Sunday, January 9, 2011

100 Things you should eat before you die: #4 Lobster Thermidor

4. Lobster Thermidor

One day I will be rich and I will have my servants fetch me this dish. But until then, it will have to wait until after I’ve had my Blue Mountain Coffee.

Have you ever seen James Burke and the BBC documentary "Connections"? (Check it out on YouTube - To talk about Lobster Thermidor, and do it justice, let's discuss it "Connections"-style (you'll just have to imagine I have an English accent and am wearing a trench coat). This means there's going to be a whole lot of English and French history before we get to the recipe. To me it's as fascinating as the recipe, but I LOVE history. It won't hurt my feelings if you skip it (yes it will), but if you want to, the recipe is at the end.

Let's begin with William the Conqueror. History teaches us that William led the Norman invasion of England in 1066 and became King William I. As would be habit for his descendants, William spent much of his time (11 years, since 1072) in Normandy, ruling the islands through his writs. William's great-grandson was King Henry II, the first of the House of Plantagenet to rule England. Henry was the first to use the title "King of England" (as opposed to "King of the English").

Now he is important to our story because of the University of Paris. See, even though William the Conqueror was a Norman, Henry the II was English. And as a result, back in 1167, he banned English students from attending the University of Paris. Well this helped St. George's Hospital Medical School (founded sometime in the 11th century) to become the best medical school within London itself, second only to Cambridge and Oxford among England's 25 or so medical schools.

Fast forward approximately 700 years and we will find that the Lecturer on Anatomy at St. George's is one Dr. Henry Gray. Dr. Gray was a British Anatomist who studied the development of the endocrine glands and spleen. What makes him so special is that he was responsible for the major anatomy textbook Anatomy Descriptive and Surgical. We now know this as Gray's Anatomy. Much of his work was based on cadavers of unclaimed bodies.

The history of the study of anatomy has been characterized, over time, by a continually developing understanding of the functions of organs and structures in the body. Methods have also improved dramatically, advancing from examination of animals through dissection of cadavers to modern methods including technologically complex techniques including X-ray, ultrasound, and MRI imaging.

But up until the early 20th century, dissection of cadavers was the primary method of developing an understanding of the human body. The dissection of human cadavers was controversial from ancient times, and was a topic fraught with controversy and superstition. As human dissections became more numerous, the need for a source of cadavers became more pressing. Criminals and the unclaimed poor often satisfied the demand. England in the eighteenth century used the bodies of condemned criminals for medical research. Capital punishment was meant both to supply the surgeons with cadavers and to serve as a deterrent to criminals who feared the desecration of their remains.

Capital punishment has in the past been practiced in virtually every society, although currently only 58 nations actively practice it. The use of formal execution extends to the beginning of recorded history. Most historical records and various primitive tribal practices indicate that the death penalty was a part of their justice system. Methods included the breaking wheel, boiling to death, flaying, slow slicing, disembowelment, crucifixion, impalement, crushing (including crushing by elephant), stoning, execution by burning, and dismemberment. As we approach modern history, capital punishment thrived. During the reign of Henry VIII, as many as 72,000 people are estimated to have been executed. However, in a movement towards a less painful, more "humane" execution, other methods were developed that were quick and relatively pain free.

Around the late 1700's, there was a professor of anatomy at the faculty of medicine at the University of Paris, Joseph, who was rather well connected. King Louis the XVI appointed Joseph, along with Benjamin Franklin, to a committee to study a very offensive topic at the time, "Animal Magnetism". As a result of this Joseph began to get interested in politics and as such, in May of 1789 he became a member of the Assembly.

As a member of the assembly Joseph mainly directed his attention towards medical reform, and it was in October 1789, during a debate on capital punishment, that he proposed that "the criminal shall be decapitated; this will be done solely by means of a simple mechanism." The "mechanism" was defined as "a machine that beheads painlessly".

At that time, beheading in France was typically done by axe or sword, which did not always cause immediate death. Additionally, beheading was reserved for the nobility, while commoners were typically hanged. Joseph assumed that if a fair system was established where the only method of capital punishment was death by mechanical decapitation, then the public would feel far more appreciative of their rights.

Despite this proposal, Joseph, as in Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, was opposed to the death penalty and hoped that a more humane and less painful method of execution would be the first step toward a total abolition of the death penalty. Ironically his name became associated with this method of execution, the Guillotine.

Europe was experiencing a period of radical social and political upheaval in the late 1700’s. France had been ruled under an absolute monarchy for hundreds of years, yet in a period of just three years it collapsed as French society experienced a radical transformation. Religion privilege ended with the concept of freedom of religion, feudalism died, the power of the aristocrat faded away, as old ideas about hierarchy and tradition gave way to the principles of the new Enlightenment. Even the calendar was changed.

The French Republican Calendar, or French Revolutionary Calendar, was a calendar created and implemented during the French Revolution. It was in use by the French government for about 12 years from late 1793 to 1805.

The Republican calendar year began at the autumn equinox of 1792 and had twelve months of 30 days each, which were given new names based on nature, principally having to do with the prevailing weather in and around Paris.

  • Vendémiaire (from Latin vindemia, "grape harvest"), starting September 22, 23 or 24
  • Brumaire (from French brume, "fog"), starting October 22, 23 or 24
  • Frimaire (From French frimas, "frost"), starting November 21, 22 or 23
  • Nivôse (from Latin nivosus, "snowy"), starting December 21, 22 or 23
  • Pluviôse (from Latin pluvius, "rainy"), starting January 20, 21 or 22
  • Ventôse (from Latin ventosus, "windy"), starting February 19, 20 or 21
  • Germinal (from Latin germen, "germination"), starting March 20 or 21
  • Floréal (from Latin flos, "flower"), starting April 20 or 21
  • Prairial (from French prairie, "pasture"), starting May 20 or 21
  • Messidor (from Latin messis, "harvest"), starting June 19 or 20
  • Thermidor (or Fervidor) (from Greek thermon, "summer heat"), starting July 19 or 20
  • Fructidor (from Latin fructus, "fruit"), starting August 18 or 19
Of course the French Revolution was not just new calendars, and the metric system. It was was also one of the bloodiest periods of European history to that time. The Reign of Terror (June 27, 1793 – July 27, 1794) was a period of violence that occurred for one year and one month after the onset of the French Revolution, incited by conflict between rival political factions, the Girondins and the Jacobins, and marked by mass executions of "enemies of the revolution." Estimates vary widely as to how many were killed, with numbers ranging from 16,000 to 40,000

The extension of civil war and the advance of foreign armies on national territory produced a political crisis, and increased the rivalry between the Girondins and the more radical Jacobins; the latter were eventually grouped in the parliamentary faction called the Mountain, and had the support of the Parisian population. The French government established the Committee of Public Safety, which took its final form on September 6, 1793, and was ultimately dominated by Maximilien Robespierre,

Maximilien de Robespierre was born in Arras, France. Here he admired the idealised Roman Republic and the rhetoric of Cicero, Cato and other classic figures. He was also influenced by Jean Jacques Rousseau and adopted many of his principles, becoming more intrigued by the idea of a virtuous self, a man who stands alone accompanied only by his conscience. He believed that the people of France were fundamentally good

Shortly after his coronation, Louis XVI, then 17 years old, had been chosen to deliver a speech to welcome the king. On the day of the speech, Robespierre and the crowd waited for the king and queen for several hours in the rain. Upon arrival, the royal couple remained in their coach for the ceremony and immediately left thereafter. Robespierre would become one of those who eventually sought the death of the king.

After the fall of the monarchy, France faced more food riots, large popular insurrections and accusations of treasonous acts by those previously considered patriots. A stable government was needed to quell the chaos. Though nominally all members of the committee were equal, Robespierre has often been regarded as the dominant force and, as such, the de facto dictator of the country. He is also seen as the driving force behind the Reign of Terror. Robespierre saw no room for mercy in his Terror, stating that "slowness of judgments is equal to impunity" and "uncertainty of punishment encourages all the guilty".

The Committee of Public Safety was responsible for suppressing internal counter-revolutionary activities and raising additional French military forces. Through the Revolutionary Tribunal, the Terror's leaders exercised broad dictatorial powers and used them to instigate mass executions and political purges. The repression accelerated in June and July 1794, a period called "la Grande Terreur" (The Great Terror).

Robespierre was one of several leaders of the Reign of Terror that were arrested and executed in the summer month of Thermidor in the French Republican Calendar (specifically 9 Thermidor Year II or July 27, 1794). This was known as the "Thermidorian Reaction".

Fast forward to 1894. Playwright Victorien Sardou was opening a new play, Gismonda, at the theatre Comédie Française. In 1891, Sardou had written the very successful Thermidor which took its name from a summer month in the French Republican Calendar, during which the "Thermidorian Reaction" occurred. Marie's, a Paris restaurant near the theatre Comédie Française created Lobster Thermidor to honor the opening of his newest play.

Lobster Thermidor is a dish consisting of a creamy mixture of cooked lobster meat, egg yolks, and cognac or brandy, stuffed into a lobster shell, and optionally served with an oven-browned cheese crust, typically Gruyère. The sauce must contain mustard (typically powdered mustard).

Lobster Thermidor


2 (1 1/2-lb) live lobsters
2 tbsp butter
2 shallots, finely chopped
1/2 cup Sherry, brandy, or cognac
2 egg yolks
2/3 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup fish stock
2 tbsp chopped parsley
2 tsp chopped tarragon
1 tbsp fresh lemon juice
1/2 tsp dry mustard
3/4 cup shredded Gruyere
salt and freshly ground black pepper
sweet paprika, for garnish
lemon wedges, for serving


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.

Beat the egg yolks into the cream and set aside.

To prepare the sauce, melt the butter in a small saucepan over medium-low heat. Add the shallots and cook about 2 minutes, until softened. Add the Sherry, Brandy, or Cognac and boil for 2–3 minutes to reduce the liquid by about half.

Add the cream and stock and boil rapidly, stirring often, about 7 minutes, until reduced and beginning to thicken. Stir in the parsley, tarragon, lemon juice, and mustard. Stir in half of the Gruyere. Season with salt and pepper

Preheat the broiler. Add the lobster meat to the sauce, then divide between the lobster shells. Sprinkle the remaining cheese over the top.

Place on a foil-lined broiler rack. Broil for 2–3 minutes, until bubbling and golden. Sprinkle with a little paprika. Serve hot, with lemon wedges.

To summarize...

So, let's recap. William the Conqueror takes over England, where his grandson bans students from studying at the University of Paris, so they found St. George's Hospital in London, which produces Dr. Henry Grey, who needed cadavers for his medical textbook, which were provided by the state through capital punishment, via means like the Guillotine which was used during the French Revolution, during the period of Enlightenment. The period of Enlightenment's new calendar system placed Robespierre execution during the month of Thermador, which was the name of a play by Victorien Sardou, which was commemorated by the restaurant Marie's in the dish Lobster Thermador.

Until next time...

Peace, love, and Hollandaise Sauce!


brit said...

Great stuff! Speaking of peace love and hollandaise, I had the best eggs benedict the other day in Sydney. It was the traditional poached eggs and thick bacon on thick meaty toast, but added a layer of fresh sauteed spinach, all covered with that great gooey egg sauce. I've never tried to make it, because I understand it's pretty easy to make horrible hollandaise... but now I want to try. :) Happy blogging, D!

DL said...

Thanks Brit! It sounds like you had Eggs Florentine - that's a favorite of mine.

Hollandaise sauce is one of those things that is worth the risk to try to make. Sure you may not make it successfully the first time, but that's ok.

Working with a double boiler isn't that tough either. If your concerned about learning how to use one, try melting some chocolate in one (think a bag of chocolate morsels). Whisk it with some heavy, cream maybe a half pint, until smooth. Chill for about two hours then roll into balls and roll in coconut, cinnamon sugar, or cocoa and enjoy your truffles!

Anyway, thank you for your continued inspiration. Thanks to you, we have all decided that we need to do a series of Benedict related blogs.

Waiting for your latest dispatch from Mudgee madame barista,