By Hector Christie
Arbo - piper plays the Galician Pipes - photo Hector Christie
In Cantabria my contact with music came from a pony tailed guitarist on the next motorhome pitch. Two days of relentless practice from this gent made me eager to roll, and so it was with, “Smo-ooooke on the water” still dinning in my ears, we headed for Arbo to check out the annual celebration we’d heard about. On this trip, “Confounded in Cantabria”, was about to be replaced by,” Gratified in Galicia”. And how.
I’d come in search of the great gastronomic festival of Arbo, which celebrates the lamprey, and the recipes used which make eating it an amazing experience. The lamprey is an eel like fish (of which more lately) widely eaten throughout Europe in the middle Ages, especially during times of fasting, as its taste is much meatier than other fish. It has a long, but now not well known connection with Britain; King Henry 1 of England was said to have died of a “surfeit of lampreys”, although it is generally reckoned that it was in fact food poisoning that carried him off (aided and abetted by gluttony). Now here’s a little known fact to slip into a pub quiz if you’re ever compiling one. “What did the Royal Air Force use as the main ingredient of the Coronation Pie they cooked for Queen Elizabeth on march 4 1953”? You’ve got it –lamprey. (Prince Phillips comments were unrecorded) This choice of ingredient probably was in recognition of the fact that historically lampreys were considered a delicacy by the royal families of England, when the tradition was for the people to present the monarch with a lamprey pie every Xmas. Strange that lamprey is still extolled in many places from the Baltic countries to South Korea, but in the UK is now practically unknown apart from fishermen using it in dried form as bait for Chub and Perch. (Although gastro-pioneer Heston Blumenthal has cooked it on telly-well he would, wouldn’t he?)
“There’s baith meat and music here, said the dug as it chewed the bagpipes” (Scottish saying)
Arbo is in Galicia - but only just. Right on the river Mino which separates Spain from Portugal, it does have something of the feel of a frontier town about it. Here devoted followers of the lamprea have met annually to party in its honour since the festival officially began in 1961.The day begins with a parade of municipal bands, and you can savour the dish in its various guises in various settings from street booths to posh restaurants. Equally ubiquitous are the seemingly endless bodegas where local wines are available to help wash down the dish So - within half an hour of our arrival we were in the grips of the local festival of the lamprea. This eel like beastie can only be eaten safely between January and April, so in April they say goodbye to it for another 8 months or so. A flimsy excuse for a party? Not to Galicians and we began in the wine cellar beneath the pub about 2pm on a Sunday afternoon where large jugs of the local alvarino were quaffed, before proceeding upstairs to an enormous meal which included three courses of lampreys cooked in different ways. This formed only part of a routine that would’ve made Henry 8th feel at home with the continuing flow of different wines and eventually local liqueurs. And music-glorious Galician music.
The best band playing was a family four piece which always had at least 2 gaitas in full flight alongside percussion, other wind instruments, and vocals. There was amusement that their pipes were for dancing to whilst Scottish pipes were for killing to (it rolls off the tongue more slickly in Spanish - bailar is to dance and matar to kill - though by this stage things were generally rolling off the tongue more thickly). How refreshing, in an era where vanity production of CDs is too common, to seek out a CD from this group and be modestly told that they had no recorded output, and would’ve been happy to pay us to listen to them. The bar car park provided our base that night. As I said goodbye to our companions we were all satisfied that between us we’d done the lamprey proud.
An Insiders View
Arbo - photo Hector Christie
Lamprey from Miño - the river of Arbo
What can I tell you about my place? For the earliest 9 years of my life I lived 35 km away in the much bigger town of Vigo, but apart from spending these last 6 months in England, I have always lived in Arbo. It is a small town, with a population of 5,000.The importance of wine and lamprey to our citizens can be seen on our coat of arms, which has a blue background with grapes and a lamprey, both in gold, taking up the main part. You will hear elsewhere of the fiesta de lamprea from someone who came for this reason, as do many tourists every year, from before I was born.
I need to tell you that there are other reasons to visit here. The opportunities for senderismo (you would call this hiking) in spring will also give you a chance to encounter not just our natural history, but also our human heritage. Around Arbo there are petroglyphs and sarcophagus. These point the way to the earliest inhabitants of Galicia, and there various big noble houses with their own, more recent histories too.
Before you come, perhaps you will find help by visiting online our museum where you can learn more about lampreys and the local wines. It is called the Arbo Wine and Lamprey Visitor Centre. In the meantime I can tell you that the lamprey is born in the river, migrates to the sea, and returns to spawn before dying. On the river Miño you can see a unique type of dam, the pesquerias, with conical nets which catch the lamprey as they swim up river. There is written evidence in documents from the 12th century that they have existed since then, but maybe even earlier in Roman times. This interest tourists as they represent tradition, as does the music of this area.
I should tell you also that the festival, which is now about food and music, was born with a high cultured spirit. Apart from gastronomic exaltation, a literary contest was also organised, which echoed the festival with the voices of invited celebrity guests. Now an exhibition featuring the wines of the area is also happening every year. This festival shows many different recipes for the lamprey. They can be fried, stuffed in various ways, prepared in a pastry pie, or cooked in a Bordelaise sauce. It is not just a Galician delicacy, but is sold widely through Spain in the following way. The lamprey is first cured and smoked, then stuffed with ham and peppers and thinly sliced like a smoked sausage. This is served with a potato salad in lemon mayonnaise, and is one of the greatest dishes in Galicia, when washed down with one of the local Condado wines. Apart from festival times tourists can taste the dish in many restaurants of the region, for example the restaurant A Rula in Arbo.The festival takes place always on the final weekend in April, and it is wise to book both accommodation and eating places in advance.
Here is a recipe for lamprey that is familiar to me. You may wish to use it at sometime.
For 4 people:2 lampreys, 200g of bread, 100g of cured ham, 2 peeled tomatoes, 1 onion, 2 cloves of garlic, 1 bay leaf, 1/4 l of red wine, 1/4 l of oil, 25g of mustard salt.
Pour the oil into an earthenware dish and add the finely chopped garlic and cured ham with the bay leaf. Brown, then immediately add the finely chopped onion and the blended tomato. Boil for 5 minutes. Add the wine, which must be flambéed previously, thicken with the bread (fried and ground) and leave to boil down for about 5 minutes. Place the lampreys in a cooking pot with very hot water and remove them quickly to scrape off the first skin with a knife. Cut off the head and collect the blood, which will be used for the sauce, take out the innards and the central nerve. Cut the lampreys into pieces and add them to the sauce with the blood. Add the mustard and salt. Leave to cook on a low flame for 30 minutes.
Serve in an earthenware dish with croutons and white rice on the side.