King Henry I of England is reputed to have died from eating a surfeit of them, and according to the great Spanish born Roman philosopher Seneca, Caesar August punished Vedius Pollio for attempting to feed a clumsy slave to the lampreys in his fishpond. Moved by the sheer novelty of the cruelty, Caesar ordered the slave’s release, the destruction of Pollio’s glassware and the filling in of his fishpond.
Lamprey was widely eaten by the upper classes in mediaeval England, especially during fasting periods, as the flavour and texture of lamprey is more akin to meat than fish. Largely forgotten about in England today, except in the upper reaches of the River Severn, the lamprey’s last gastronomic foothold in Europe is on the French Atlantic coast, in Bordeaux, and on the Spanish and Portuguese sides of the River Miño in north-west Spain.
A bizarre creature, half parasite-half predator, it has remained largely unchanged for at least the last 360 million years. The lamprey has no scales, a cartilaginous backbone, a ‘nostril’ on its head, port-holes for gills and a hideously ugly mouth armed with razor sharp teeth. It uses this formidable set of chops to clamp itself onto its prey. Favourite targets include migratory Atlantic Salmon and Sea Trout. They secrete an anti-coagulant which enables them to carry on feeding until they’ve had enough or until the unfortunate host croaks it. The lamprey is also a migratory species like salmon and eel and can be found in fresh water, lakes and the open sea, growing up to about 36” in length.
From January to April, the Galician villages of Arbo and As Neves on the River Miño draw gourmets from all over Spain. They come in droves to feast on lamprea and delicious angulas, or elvers, which enter the Miño from the Atlantic Ocean at the same time as the lamprey. Angulas are probably Spain’s most expensive dish, at around 60 euros for just a hundred gram serving. They are pan fried with garlic and whole cayenne pepper and served in a small earthenware dish, always with a wooden fork.
Lamprey can be served bordelaise style, stuffed or smoked. Casa Calviño in As Neves, is one of the known ‘temples’ on the River Miño to try this most typical of Galician dishes. While there I was invited to watch the complete process from beginning to end. I was taken to a vivero or fish tank, the size of a chest freezer, in the garage of the restaurant. Here I was cheerily greeted by the owner’s granddaughter, armed with a broom handle, and busy stirring the water in the tank. The lamprey were going bonkers, swimming around in circles and up and down the sides of the tank. I was told that this was vital; the lamprey had to be antagonised in order to reach the kitchen stressed out, thereby ensuring optimum results in the kitchen. To add insult to injury, these animalitos are also deprived of sustenance for a few days, which adds to their general grumpy disposition when they leave the vivero.
Preparing lamprey bordelaise style entails cooking the creature in its own blood, and mixing that blood with a good rioja, or a nice spicy red mencía from the banks of the Miño and perhaps a dash of bacardí for good measure. It’s believed locally that this stress factor has something to do with a chemical reaction in the blood, which is still ‘warm’ when mixed with the rest of the ingredients. But the lamprey is a fish, and fish don’t have warm blood, you might argue? Well the locals insist that the lamprey is not actually fish, but a bicho raro, or strange beast and end of story. Who would argue with them?
Meanwhile back in the garage, the granddaughter stood poised over the tank waiting for a lamprey to foolishly approach the surface; at this point she bravely plunged her hand into the seething mass of water, grabbed the writhing lamprey and dropped it into a white bucket. She then ran quickly up the stairs and handed the bucket to a lady, cook’s knife in hand, waiting at the sink. This half snake-half eel thing was then plunged live into boiling water for a few seconds and the first layer of its mottled greyish-brown skin was scraped away. With a couple of swift nicks, she deftly removed the still flinching head, central nerve and guts, taking great care to pour the precious blood into a pre-warmed earthenware dish. After a thorough rinsing under cold running water, it was then passed to another lady who made eight deep incisions along the length of its body. It was at this point that I was asked to turn my back. The cook was presumably mixing together, in just the right proportions, the all important ingredients of blood, wine, olive oil, vinegar, bacardí, bay leaf, clove, nutmeg, black pepper, finely chopped cured ham, garlic and onion for the final stage of the cooking process.
That part over and done with, I headed back downstairs to rejoin my hosts who were stood gathered round a table having an aperitivo. Thirty minutes later, the call came for me to head back upstairs again. I was ushered into the kitchen, glass of mencía in hand, to see the glorious end result – ten neatly stacked dishes of the exquisite lamprea a la bordelesa. After the customary team photo, we took our seats at a table upstairs for a fabulous four hour lunch where we were served both of the lamprey house specialities, the bordelaise and the stuffed, accompanied by a wonderful salpicón of finely chopped semi-hard boiled egg and strips of pimientos de piquillo, the famous roasted red peppers from northern Spain. Pudding was the local requesón, a riotously rich and creamy cheese curd made from cow’s milk and drizzled with the local honey.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that the lamprey was hideous creature, it most certainly is, but it also has to be said that there’s nothing quite like it, gastronomically speaking. So if you’re Galicia bound early next year, reserve a table at the lamprey temple Casa Calvino for a truly memorable culinary experience.