Lobster Odyssey

Finding the "real" recipe for one of the signature dishes of the Greek isles involves an epic journey

It was May, a time when the weather in the Greek Islands usually is benevolent. Six friends from New Jersey had arrived to sail with my partner, Kostas, and me aboard Allison, our Custom 580. We planned a leisurely cruise through the beautiful Cyclades ("Circle") islands, so named because they form a perfect ring in the Aegean centered on the ancient city of Delos.

Our friends came prepared for typical May weather, with shorts, bathing suits, and suntan lotion. But Aeolus, the Greek god of winds, sent the fierce and fickle meltemi wind, which characterizes Aegean sailing in June, July, and August, unseasonably early. We left Athens in a Force 7 gale and were soon broad-reaching under double-reefed jib, the knotmeter pegged at 12 knots. Instead of beachwear, the crew was swaddled in full foul-weather gear. As we passed Cape Sounion and altered course for Kea, we felt the meltemi’s full force. Out of the lee of the mainland, the steep and confused Aegean seas built into three-yard-high mountains, then crashed together and thundered into the cockpit with the force of small waterfalls.

Seated near the stern, our friend Jon, a frequent Greek-islands sailor, looked up from the book he was doggedly attempting to read between dousings from boarding seas and remarked, "At least at the end of this leg there’s lobster spaghetti."

Indeed, Aristos Taverna on the Kea waterfront is known for its signature dish of the Greek islands, and it turned out to be just the thing to restore our spirits and satisfy appetites whetted by the long, challenging sail. Katerina, Aristos’ chef, coyly refused to divulge her recipe, so we set out on a collective quest to discover its delectable secrets. We queried the island Greeks everywhere we sailed in the Cyclades and discovered that debate about the ingredients for lobster spaghetti rages. We heard countless versions of how to make the dish, but none sounded right. And none tasted like Katerina’s. Our guests flew home; we vowed to continue the mission.

It was much later in the season, in the Ionian Islands, when Kostas and I found the recipe, revealed by a retired taverna owner over late-afternoon ouzos. He claimed he knew Katerina’s secrets. He also shared some of his own.

It took Odysseus 10 years to return from Troy to his beloved Ithaca, in the Ionian Sea, and his patiently waiting wife, Penelope. It took us 10 weeks of sailing to find the "real" lobster spaghetti. Like Penelope, we think the wait was worth it.

Lobster Spaghetti

2 1 1/2-pound lobsters

6 mussels (optional)

6 cups water (or more if needed)

2 or 3 Tbsp. olive oil

6 or 7 large tomatoes, diced and peeled

4 cloves garlic, minced

1 large onion, chopped

3 Tbsp. tomato paste

1/4 cup sweet red wine

1/2 cup stock

1 tsp. thyme

1 tsp. fennel

Cayenne pepper, to taste

Salt, to taste

Pinch of sugar

6 tsp. heavy cream

1 stick butter

1 to 1 1/2 pounds No. 5 spaghetti

Rinse and clean lobsters and mussels. (Spiny or clawed lobsters are acceptable.) Boil lobsters and mussels in water until lobster shells turns bright pink and mussels are firm in their open shells. Remove lobsters and run cold water over shells to cool. Reserve stock, including mussels and shells. Remove meat from the body and claws of the lobster. Add tomalley and any roe and chop coarsely. Remove membrane from each tail, and separate meat from shell; save shells. Sauté vegetables in oil. Add tomato paste, wine, stock, spices, and empty lobster body and claw shells and simmer until reduced and thickened (at least two hours), adding stock as needed to thin. Add lobster meat to sauce and simmer for another 10 minutes. Add cream, stir, and remove from heat. Fill each lobster tail with a generous amount of sauce. Cook pasta. Toss pasta in butter and place on a large serving platter. Spoon remaining sauce over and top with claws and optional mussels. Serve with green salad, crusty bread, and wine. Serves six.