Iconic soup will be the focus of Ulster Chowder competition in Ballycastle

A box of lobsters
A box of lobsters

“Chowder breathes reassurance. It steams consolation.” This quote from Clementine Paddleford in ‘Charles Wysocki’s Americana Cookbook’ sums up the comforting sustenance of this iconic soup.

The word itself comes from the Latin “calderia” a place originally used for warming things that latterly came to mean a cooking pot. Chowders can be traced to the fishing villages along the coast of France from Bordeaux to Brittany.

In America the earliest reference is from the Boston Evening Post in September 1753. Clams and oysters were consumed in vast quantities along the Atlantic coast by native Indians. The pilgrims who arrived from England didn’t care much for fish and records from the 1620s show that they fed clams and mussels to their hogs with the explanation that they were the “meanest of God’s blessings”.

When I went to university in New England in the late eighties chowder played a major part in my diet. The university ran several restaurants and I was assigned to their new fish restaurant in my first summer there. There were two types of chowder on the menu – a traditional creamy New England variety and a tomato broth-based Manhattan one.

We were rushing around so much the only chance you got to eat was a cup of chowder on the go. It didn’t put me off though and it’s still one of my favourite things to eat. If you’re ever in Kinsale in Cork, Fishy Fishy cafe does an amazing version with prawns flavoured with tarragon – you could sup a gallon of it!

The Rathlin Sound Festival takes place this weekend in Ballycastle and one of the events is the Ulster Chowder competition. The winner will get the chance to represent Northern Ireland next year at the chowder championship in Cork.

Like any good soup a good chowder is about the stock. When you cook clams or mussels, the natural juices can be used as a cooking liquor. I’m cooking at the festival tomorrow and will making mine with lobster. Once the lobster has been gently poached and the flesh removed, the shells are used to make a rich stock with vegetables, wine and tomatoes. For me a chowder must have bacon to give that porcine saltiness that goes so well with shellfish. A flourish of cream adds a bit of decadence.

Ironically, although I live in a coastal town it’s often hard to get fresh fish. The exception is lobster – they’re landed in Portstewart and Portrush. Most are exported to France and Spain which is completely beyond me. A tenner will get you a lobster enough to feed two people comfortably so it’s not going to break the bank either.

The RSPCA suggests placing the lobster in the freezer for 25 minutes which induces a catatonic state and is the most humane way of cooking them. Slip them into boiling water and cook for about eight minutes for a pound and half one. Break the shells with a rolling pin and pull out the meat or just cut them in half and place on a hot barbecue for a couple of minutes and brush with butter and lemon. Eat outside with a teatowel for a bib!

My recipe this week is for lobster chowder. I’m not saying it’s the easiest of things to make, but it really is well worth the effort. Failing that you could come down to Ballycastle on Sunday and try some without having to chop an onion!