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The Times bemoans the availability of cheap lobstah flown into G.B. from Canada.

When Asda announced the other day that it was putting Canadian lobster on sale at £3 each, I was horrified. This was as bad as putting sirloin of puppy in the meat section. Because lobsters deserve better: there is no creature so glorious or strange from the sea. In their glossy dark blue, with gold braid fringes, they look like nothing so much as newly promoted admirals. And, when at last you have to boil them, there follows the thrill of that transformation to rose-red, as night becomes dawn.


The public relations department at Asda gave me a cheesy line stressing the store’s philanthropy: “This is a great way for customers to try lobster at a fantastically low price.” But lobsters are beautiful, ancient and have been spotted marching in single file across the ocean bed for purposes no one has ever discovered: such creatures shouldn’t be available at the price of a battery chicken.

Actually, the £10-£12 or so you would pay this week for a proper fresh 500g Scottish lobster in a fishmonger is absurdly cheap too: the price of a couple of cinema tickets or a DVD. These lovely beasts have spent at least seven years foraging on the ocean floor (possibly in queues) to give us joy, and you think that’s all they are worth?

I suppose the author is trying to be funny, and I of course agree that lobstah is praise-worthy, but this begins to sound an awful lot like “Let them eat scrod.”  And if he really wants to pay more, what’s to stop him?

I went and bought a couple of lobsters from Asda’s store in Leith, which stands a few feet away from the Firth of Forth and its live Scottish lobsters. I was ready to sneer. The lobsters were tiny and only just over the legal minimum size. They come from Canada, and are cooked and frozen. Though of the same family, you can tell that they are not the Northern European variety by a strange orange tinge to their skirts. I don’t like lobster from the far side of the Atlantic, even in its “live” state (they chill the poor beasts so that they can be shipped across the ocean in a state of suspended animation, then they are warmed enough to twitch a little on the fishmonger’s slab).

So they weren’t, in fact, worth more than a couple pounds?

The Asda lobsters were not as grim as I expected, though they were overcooked and amazingly tough. About the best you can say for them is that they are better than some of the frozen shellfish that arrives here — farmed Asian prawns, for instance. They tasted OK, but they weren’t good enough to eat as God intends — cold, with mayonnaise, potato salad and a little tomato and onion. So I made them instead into bisque, using Rick Stein’s lovely rich recipe with cream, vermouth, fennel and paprika. That was pretty lush, though I had to vamp it up with some strong fish stock.

Or maybe they were worth more than the stated price? I’m all confused.  (By the way, if you think that’s how God intended lobsters to be et, then you are a heathen.  Boiled with lemon and melted butter.  Only way to do it.  Yes, there are lobstah rolls, of course, but that’s what you do with the leftovers.)

I rang Roy Brett, who used to work for Mr Stein in Cornwall and now runs the lovely new fish restaurant in Edinburgh, Ondine. He said he wouldn’t have Canadian lobster in his kitchen. “The difference between them and British lobster is night and day — I’ve tried cooking them and it’s like eating plastic. Interestingly, I get American and Canadian customers in here, and they try our Eyemouth lobster and say that they’ve never tasted lobsters anything like it or as good.” Brett pays £14 a kilo for lobsters and points out that selling them so cheap can only damage the hardworking British fishermen. “I think what Asda is doing is a disgrace. We should value and protect our produce.”

But….but…..then they’re not the same thing! It’s the high end and the bottom end of the market!  This is the equivalent of saying that Kia shouldn’t be allowed to sell cheap sedans because it takes away business from Jaguar and BMW!  Christ, I’m an English major, and even I can see the silliness of this argument.

That last line, btw, is a cue:  Bring on the knee-jerk protectionism!

The Shellfish Association director Tom Pickering is planning a marketing drive to promote British lobster over the North American incomers. “The point is, you may pay a bit more, but you get much more meat, better taste, and you support a traditional British industry.” At the moment, he says, most of our lobsters are sold directly to France and Spain, where they’re properly appreciated. That keeps the price up, which is good for the fishermen. But back here in Britain, as so often, we’re left with food whose chief quality is that it’s cheap — like our chocolate with less cocoa in it than anyone else’s, or our sad industrial meat. Is that really what we want?

But even then,  it doesn’t make much sense to me.  The author’s friend in Edinburgh, at least, doesn’t seem to have any trouble getting the “good kind,” so what’s the problem?  Again, you want the premium, you pay for it.  But if Ralph and Art Matey want to pick up some cheap Canadian imports, let them do that as well.

(As a matter of fact, I’ve never tried European lobstah.  And the truth is that the imports going over from Canada probably are pretty nasty by the time they get there.  Only good lobstah is that fresh out of the watah, preferably bought off the boat that trapped it before the boat’s even had time to moor.  Ayah.)

This is pretty durn cool: Using airborne laser sweeps to map ancient Mayan cities.

For a quarter of a century, two archaeologists and their team slogged through wild tropical vegetation to investigate and map the remains of one of the largest Maya cities, in Central America. Slow, sweaty hacking with machetes seemed to be the only way to discover the breadth of an ancient urban landscape now hidden beneath a dense forest canopy.

Even the new remote-sensing technologies, so effective in recent decades at surveying other archaeological sites, were no help. Imaging radar and multispectral surveys by air and from space could not “see” through the trees.

Then, in the dry spring season a year ago, the husband-and-wife team of Arlen F. Chase and Diane Z. Chase tried a new approach using airborne laser signals that penetrate the jungle cover and are reflected from the ground below. They yielded 3-D images of the site of ancient Caracol, in Belize, one of the great cities of the Maya lowlands.

In only four days, a twin-engine aircraft equipped with an advanced version of lidar (light detection and ranging) flew back and forth over the jungle and collected data surpassing the results of two and a half decades of on-the-ground mapping, the archaeologists said. After three weeks of laboratory processing, the almost 10 hours of laser measurements showed topographic detail over an area of 80 square miles, notably settlement patterns of grand architecture and modest house mounds, roadways and agricultural terraces.

And who knew NASA had a space archeology program?

NASA recently stepped up its promotion of technologies developed for broad surveys of Earth and other planets to be used in archaeological research. Starting with a few preliminary tests over the years, the agency has now established a formal program for financing archaeological remote-sensing projects by air and space.

“We’re not looking for monoliths on the Moon,” joked Craig Dobson, manager of the NASA space archaeology program.

Every two years, Dr. Dobson said, NASA issues several three-year grants for the use of remote sensing at ancient sites. In addition to the Caracol tests, the program is supporting two other Maya research efforts, surveys of settlement patterns in North Africa and Mexico and reconnaissance of ancient ruins in the Mekong River Valley and around Angkor Wat.

Nothing like a latter-day Apollo project, of course, but the archaeology program is growing, Dr. Dobson said, and will soon double in size, to an annual budget of $1 million.

(I hope that the technical expertise developed here will also be put to use in the critical field of volcano-lancing.)

Today is the anniversary of the birth, in 1907, of the immortal Katharine Hepburn.

Being a member in good standing of the RCBfA, it’s no secret that ol’ Robbo has an eye for the ladies.  It’s also no secret that said eye occassionally sometimes frequently causes thoughts to generate in Robbo’s brain that really have no business being there.  (This is why the confessional was invented.)

But it’s a curious fact that despite her being one of my very favorites and, IMHO, an astonishingly beautiful woman, Miss Hepburn has never, ever been the cause of such thoughts.  Indeed, the idea of La Kate as a subject of (shall we say) daydreaming has, whenever I’ve considered it a-tall, put me quite off.

Why this is, I’m not entirely sure, except that I think it has something to do with a certain Artemis-like quality about her, almost an asexuality or even an anti-sexuality (I never really buy into her romantic scenes in the movies), coupled with some kind of primordial warning that if one were ever to catch sight of her in the buff, one would immediately be turned into a stag and set upon by hunting dogs.


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May 2010