Take a wander round Ponte de Lima in February and you will see fishermen in small boats in the river Lima setting their nets in the shallow waters. In town the boards are up in front of restaurants and tascas announcing ‘Há Lampreia’ – there is lamprey.
Curious as to what this strange fish was I asked local friends about it and I have to say their description didn’t exactly make me want to rush into the nearest hostelry and order it up; a bloodsucking, boneless creature with a sucker shaped mouth full of teeth that attaches itself like a leech to its prey and drinks its blood. Turns out it is a living fossil; it was around 200 million years before the dinosaurs.
I looked it up and found out that lamprey has quite a pedigree, the Romans adored it. In the middle ages King Henry I died of a ‘surfeit of lamprey’ and the Queen has been presented with Lamprey pie on more than one state occasion. There is even a scene in the popular TV programme Game of Thrones where Tyrion Lannister is seen dining on Lamprey pie ! It was also popular during Lent because of its meaty flavours.
Given the number of lamprey festivals in the area it was clearly highly prized and it seemed rude not to partake. Its only taken me ten years to get around to it but when it came down to it I still needed a final shove. A quiet evening with friends in riverside restaurant Açude in Ponte de Lima the waiter proudly announced the first lamprey of the season had been delivered to their kitchen that afternoon. It was now or never. It is served a dish for two people and I was persuaded to share with one of our party.
The dish arrived, and was ceremoniously placed in the centre of the table. Lamprey is also a popular dish in Bordeaux and this lamprey had been cooked à la Bordelaise. First it was drained of its blood, cut into pieces, flambéed in brandy and simmered in a mixture of its own blood and red wine. The sauce was so rich and dark that I couldn’t really make out the lamprey at first. I balanced a piece on one of the accompanying toasted breads and bit into the firm grey-white flesh. It had a meaty texture and the taste was a bit like scallops but more earthy. Not quite like anything I have tasted before ! Lamprey can be a little divisive, people either seem to love it or hate it but with the species now being declared endangered it may end up being consigned to local gastronomic folklore.
We enjoyed this meal with wines from the Adega de Ponte de Lima. The French would probably tell you that this dish should be served with a glass of Bordeaux wine but I found the vinho verde was a delicious refreshing accompaniment and sliced through the richness of the dish.