Vinalhaven Smoked Lobster & Other Lobster-Themed Gift Ideas from Maine
By Merritt Carey
“I was smoking lobster for my friends and family, and someone said to me I should start selling it.”
I’m riding along with Robert Young in his pick up on Vinalhaven. I’d been staying on North Haven, just a stone’s throw away across the Fox Island Thoroughfare, and came across in a small skiff where Robert was waiting for me at the landing. “I’ve learned a whole lot in the past few years, mostly that it’s not as simple as making great smoked lobster and selling them.”
Robert, along with his wife and two daughters, has been making and selling smoked lobster and a smoked lobster spread through their family owned company Vinalhaven Smoked Lobster for the past several years. He’d build two rooms off his house to accommodate his business, installed a tank for lobsters in his garage, and completed a HACCP plan (“that was an undertaking”). In essence, he’d done everything required for a food start up. All while fishing 800 traps.
“My father and my grandfather, all fishermen,” Robert reflects as we turn the corner to his house. His house is situated on a hill – signs of his livelihood abound – traps and buoys, all neatly stacked. He shows me the rooms he built off his house – there is a commercial grade cooker and picking table. “I first built one room, but we were just too cramped, so I had to add on another.” He tells me this as though he’s talking about taking out the trash: just something that had to be done. This is a man, I can tell, who does not rest. No sense festering about all the hurtles in the way, just get on with it and get it done.
He hands me a sweetly wrapped sampler 4 -3 oz. containers: one each of his cream cheese spreads (cherry and hickory) and two of the smoked lobster, also cherry and hickory. When I called him to see if I could come talk to him, I hadn’t anticipated this windfall- already I was anticipating how tasty this smoked lobster would be on crackers with a nice glass of wine.
In his garage was the lobster tank, the filtration system bubbling away. “This makes it easier, now my wife doesn’t have to wait for me to come in from hauling before she can start getting an order together, she can start cooking the lobsters right away” he notes. “I catch all the lobsters we use in our products. A few times I’ve had to use other people’s lobsters, but it’s mostly what I catch.”
Later, we head down to the harbor where he keeps his boat. We pull into the parking lot, there’s a sign by the road Vinalhaven Smoked Lobster. Robert nods his head in the direction of the harbor, “that’s my Dad, taking his gear out”. I glance over to one of the many hoists, and see his dad lifting traps up off his boat. This scene is replaying everywhere up and down the coast as fishermen grab the good haul days to try and get their gear up and in or shifted to where they want it for winter. “It’s a sprint to the end,” one fisherman told me. “Until my gear is up and my boat is hauled out and sitting in my yard, I can’t rest.”
I am somewhat unprepared for what I see as we come into the harbor. Hundreds of lobster boats, along with some scallop draggers (the season just opened), all nestled in the protected shores of Carver’s Harbor. Then again, I remember, Vinalhaven is second only to Stonington in lobster landings. We head out to his boat, MaKenzie Hannah. “Your two daughters?” I inquire. “No that’s my first daughter, we found out we were pregnant with our second on the day we were launching the boat,” he answered, wide smile.
Later that evening, back on the mainland, I open my sampler. I’ve always been a fan of smoked seafood: salmon, mussels, but I’d never tried smoked lobster. My plan was to set it all out on a platter, but my hunger got the better of me – I tried the hickory smoked lobster right out of its container– which did not disappoint – the smoky flavor blended beautifully with the lobster. Later I tried the spreads on crackers and again found them delectable. As flavorful as they were, I knew this little four-pack would make a perfect gift for any lobster lover.