Updated: Dec 3, 2020
"Apart from its sheer deliciousness (...) this sauce has other points to recommend it. Anisette is not a liqueur which, speaking at least for myself, one has a great compulsion to swig down in quantity; in my cupboard a bottle lasts for years."
Elizabeth David (1963)
The sauce in this dish appears to have originated in the 19th Century and is without question the best sauce for lobster I have ever come across - I've been enjoying it for the best part of 20 years. It's a recipe that appears in the book of Elizabeth David's essays and short stories, "An Omelette and a Glass of Wine", specifically from an article entitled "Lobster Courchamps" that was originally published in "The Compleat Imbiber 4" in 1963.
The three references Elizabeth David cites as being the source of the recipe were written in France and date from between 1837 and 1873. Remarkable enough in itself perhaps, but even more so when one considers that soy sauce is one of the ingredients in the recipe. It is true to say that Elizabeth David is well-associated with introducing unfamiliar ingredients to her readership - indeed a significant part of her raison d'être on returning from her wartime Mediterranean jaunts was to drive a more adventurous spirit into the cuisine of post-war Britain (she would nowadays be called an "influencer", no doubt) - but that the source of her inspiration had come perhaps some 100 years prior is another quantum leap in culinary space-time. I hope to be able to verify this history in due course.
The central flavour in the sauce is one of aniseed. This comes primarily from tarragon which is well-recognised for its companionship with shellfish. But the aniseed notes of the tarragon are elevated by the contribution from a splash of Anisette de Bordeaux, a liqueur of the type encountered in many Mediterranean countries. It is possible to buy Anisette de Bordeaux in the UK (though it looks much more expensive than if bought in Europe) but, given the very small quantity in which it is employed, cheaper and more widely-available alternatives seem a quite acceptable choice.
A final note of merit attributable to this dish is the use of the matter found in the head of the lobster. It is far from uncommon for this, really very tasty, material to be foregone by a diner, but by incorporating it into the sauce, its rich, sweet and savoury flavour is allowed to make itself known without the concern that undoubtedly stems from its appearance and texture. It is perhaps just reward from going this little step that the space vacated from removing the head matter is sized conveniently so as to accommodate the meat from the claws!
With lobster prices at the lows of the year, if you fancy getting your hands on one or more of the outstanding-quality cooked lobsters from the market stall then this sauce will be the gracing of a classy and quick dish. It would also work fantastically with freshly-barbecued lobster, and either way must surely be served with warm or cold new potatoes, no?
Elizabeth David writes this recipe specifically for a 1½lb (675g) hen lobster (or a "langouste"). I have found that, in fact, the quantities directed for the sauce can accompany rather more lobster than that. For example, two or three halved 450g lobsters can serve 4-6 as a starter, or a 650-700g lobster for each of two or three diners is an ample main course. The lobster can be served cold or warmed under the grill as described in the recipe. And although the original 19th Century recipes apparently refer to the sauce as being "for boiled lobster", I think a sensational eating experience would be had were the lobster barbecued.
In writing the recipe below I genuinely have changed almost nothing from the one written by Elizabeth David. All I have done differently is to suggest scraping the lobster head matter through a sieve rather than pounding it in a mortar (but I'm not stopping anyone), and to translate some of the empirical or otherwise imprecise measurements into equivalent quantities more familiar to us these days (and I have put them in brackets). With regard to the chopping of the herbs, no precise guidance is given so I would say we just cut them according to our preferred texture of sauce.
Ingredients (Sauce serves 2-3 for a main course or 4-6 for a starter)
Cooked lobster, quantity as per notes
2 small shallots, finely chopped (30g chopped weight, about 3 tbsp)
1 heaped tsp chopped tarragon leaves
2 tbsp chopped parsley
1 tsp Dijon mustard
24-30 drops (1 tbsp) dark soy sauce
6 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
Juice of "half a rather small lemon" (1½-2 tbsp)
1 tsp Pernod or Pastis (or other aniseed liqueur)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Melted butter (optional, if serving the lobster warm)
Prepare the lobster(s). Remove the claws from the lobster. Split the head and body in half lengthways and scrape all the red and green material from the head into a sieve set over a mixing bowl. If being especially amenable to your diners, cut the tail meat away from the shell and place back in the shell. If being even more amenable, cut the tail meat into fork-sized pieces ("scallops", Elizabeth David calls them) before returning them to the shell. Break the claws away from the "arms" and crack them open to remove the meat from inside, ideally in a single piece. Put each piece of claw meat in the empty head section of each lobster half. Finally remove the meat as best as possible from each "arm" section and tuck this into any gaps remaining in the lobster halves.
Scrape the material removed from the lobster heads through the sieve into the mixing bowl. Add the shallots, herbs, mustard, soy sauce and some seasoning and mix together. Gradually whisk in the olive oil then add 1½ tbsp of the lemon juice and finally the Pernod, Pastis or alternative. Mix well then check and adjust the seasoning and add the remaining lemon juice to taste.
If serving the lobster warm, heat the grill to the highest setting. Put the filled lobster halves, cut side up, on a baking sheet and brush with the melted butter. Grill for about 3 minutes so that the meat and shells are warmed through.
Either dress the lobsters with the sauce and serve, or serve the lobsters undressed but with a small bowl of sauce on each plate, or fill one bowl of sauce that the table may share.
"An Omelette and a Glass of Wine", Elizabeth David (1952-84), pp. 191: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Omelette-Glass-Wine-Elizabeth-David/dp/0670807699