Lamprey: a vampire underwater, a delicacy on the table

One of the most primitive fish on Earth swims all the way from the ocean, up the River Miño, to spawn and die. Its gelatinous body and its peculiar round sucker-shaped mouth may be misleading when it comes to judging its taste, but the lamprey is a highly appreciated delicacy that the town of Arbo, in the province of Pontevedra, has been honouring in late April since 1961. Last year, this celebration was declared a Festival of National Tourist Interest.

There are thousands of legends going around about this gastronomic relic, which already existed 500 million years ago. It is born in the rivers, migrates to the sea, where it lives in great depths, and swims back countercurrent at the end of its life. The River Miño, in the 30 kilometres (approximately 19 miles) from Crecente to Salvaterra de Miño, is dotted with no less than 400 pesqueiras: in the past, fishermen would use these stone weirs to catch this jawless water vampire that feeds on other fish's blood through its sucker-shaped mouth.

Arbo welcomes 30,000 diners at the end of April to pay tribute to this fish, with an unappealing appearance, but nonetheless exquisite. This festival is in its 57th year, and 600 kilos (over 1,300 pounds) of lamprey are served in 5,000 helpings. All specimens are caught the old-fashioned way, and they bear a label giving information on the date of the catch and the fisherman or fisherwoman who caught them. In the last few years, traditional recipes have made a comeback, and the main way to cook it is á arbense ("the Arbo way"), in a clay casserole, stewed in its own blood with white rice and toasted bread. But there are many other possibilities: dry, stuffed, grilled, with a special type of peas, in an empanada (a typical Galician pie, usually with a savoury filling), with rice, with Russian salad…

The writer Álvaro Cunqueiro, from the Galician town of Mondoñedo, who was an expert on Galician gastronomy, offered in his work Viajes y yantares por Galicia (Travels and repasts around Galicia) a treatise on lamprey, including all possible ways to prepare it. This intellectual claimed that one of the images on the Portico of Glory, at one of the entrances of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, is tasting an empanada filled with this delicious fish.

Of all the most important popular gastronomic events in Galicia, only the Albariño Festival in Cambados (1953) and the Festival of O Condado Wine in Salvaterra de Miño are older than the Lamprey Festival of Arbo. Alfonso Vázquez Martínez, former headmaster of Ourense secondary school, played a major role in getting this tradition started: it was his initiative to promote the first Lamprey Day, in April 1961, which was celebrated along with a literary competition. At the beginning, the festival consisted of an official luncheon organised by the Town Council in a local restaurant, and lamprey was served with allis shad and baby goat "San Fins-style". This delicious meal was washed down with wines from of O Condado, and a dance called danza do libramento was performed at the end.

The lamprey is almost amphibian, and it was highly appreciated in the past because it could survive a whole week out of the water. This prehistoric fish was already consumed in a vast territory at the dawn of Christianity. During Lent, monks would abstain from it because it was cartilaginous and it was therefore considered tantamount to eating meat.

Arbo has earned the title that distinguishes it as a historic capital for this delicacy. In this town, preparation of lamprey gradually gained popularity because, after swimming up the River Miño, the animal arrives in perfect condition for tasting after it has been cleansed and its flesh has hardened.

In the 1990s, the wine culture exhibit Arbomostra was added to the festival, and, in 1996, the Dry Lamprey Festival kicked off on the first weekend of July, organised by the local restaurants and rounded out by an interesting cultural programming and attractive activities. The main course can be tasted in various ways, paired with regional wines, belonging to As Rías Baixas Designation of Origin.

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