Of Sea Lamprey, risk premiums and toxic banking…

With the opening of the Galician Sea-Lamprey Season 2013 just around the corner on January 15th, I thought it only right and fitting that I talked to Nito Calviño of Casa Calviño in As Neves (Pontevedra), one of the ‘consecrated temples’ of Sea-Lamprey cuisine on Galicia’s River Miño. I have to admit that the first time I went to Casa Calviño I wasn’t exactly sure what I was letting myself in for. I was doing some research for a gastronomic piece which was later published in Living Spain Magazine, at the time the definitive journal on Spain and all things Spanish.

The very idea of tucking into what is essentially a parasitical fish with a hideous blood-sucking mouth, cooked Bordelaise style, i.e. in its own blood, albeit with the addition of red wine and some distinctly medieval spicing, seemed a little daunting. Little did I know at the time I would be transformed overnight into a total Sea-Lamprey nut, compelled to seek her out (she’s grammatically feminine in Spanish) at least three times a season, which runs from the beginning of January to the end of April.

As Neves is a pretty little village nestling in the hills that overlook the majestic River Miño and Portugal, it was in this idyllic setting that Casa Calviño’s host Nito Calviño spared me a few minutes to talk about his passion for Petromyzon Marinus or Sea Lamprey.

Adrian McManus: What are your expectations for the coming season, taking into the critically low water levels of last season and the bleak economic situation right now in Spain?

Nito Calviño: In spite of last year’s poor catches, the prospects for the coming 2013 season are looking very good, due mainly to all the rainfall we’ve had so far this month. The ban on the extraction of sand from the river bottom, introduced in 1999, has also gone a long way in improving annual catches. Given the fact that lamprey and other species lay their eggs in the sand, dredging and extraction had a catastrophic effect on their reproduction cycles. Regarding the grim economic situation the country finds itself in, we sincerely hope our clients will grasp the opportunity to come and enjoy a dish that can only be eaten for the first four months of the year. As front of house manager of the restaurant, I can assure you we’ll rise to the occasion and strive to ensure our prices are competitive.

AM: Casa Calviño has a long history. Where did it all begin for you?

NC: Casa Calviño was founded in 1935. I actually belong to the third generation of this family business. In 1935 it was a ‘tasca’ or simple village bar where my grandfather sold the typical tapas of the day and the local Rubiós wine, which of course is very well known today and absolutely perfect for pairing with lamprey. The second generation began to specialise more exclusively in the lamprey area and during the 1980s the business really took off with the house undergoing considerable structural change, but also introducing the necessary culinary developments along the way.

AM: Apart from the classic Bordelaise style, featuring freshly caught Sea-Lamprey, how else do you serve it?

NC: Basically, we prepare lamprey in three different ways: Firstly, in the classic Bordelaise style i.e.  braising it in its own blood in an earthenware dish, served with boiled rice and crutons. Secondly, we offer stuffed and rolled lamprey, which contains good cured ham, hard-boiled egg and ‘piquillo’ peppers. Finally, there’s smoked lamprey which we grill ‘a la brasa’ or over charcoal and wood.

AM: What wines pair well with Sea-Lamprey?

NC: As I mentioned previously, the local Rubiós wine, a young, fruity red and made from a local grape variety is highly recommended as is the excellent Mencía red from the Ribeira Sacra appellation located upstream from us.

AM: Are there any other house specialities you serve if fear and loathing of ‘the beast’ gets the better of your customers?

NC: One of the most popular dishes is our ‘cabrito lechal’ or roast suckling goat which we serve either roasted or in the form of fried ribs that we call ‘costilletas’. You can also order our other house special ‘callos’, a classic, spicy stew made with tripe, chickpeas, shin of beef and homemade chorizoFor fish lovers our menu also features locally caught produce from the Galician rías or estuaries and some of the best veal and beef in Spain.  

AM: Well it goes without saying that you’ll be seeing me quite soon, so I’d just like to wish you all, and especially Doña Maruxa, the ‘jefa’ and heart and soul of the operation, a very happy Christmas and New Year. Is there anything you’d like to add?

NC: Only that the lamprey season will begin on January 1st and run through to the 30th of April and that we look forward to seeing our friends, old and new. Have a very happy Christmas and a better 2013.

 

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And the winners were…

Still feeling somewhat giddy after the closing day/night of one of Spain’s longest running and most important gastronomic fairs, the LVIII Fiesta de Albariño. This year’s gold medal went once again to Señorío de Rubiós from Bodegas Coto Redondo in As Neves. The silver went to Pionero from Adega Almirante in Portas, near Caldas de Reis, and the bronze medal was awarded to O Casal from Bodegas Boado-Chaves from Ribadumia. One of the inexplicable entry rules is that one has to present a wine from the latest vintage. The powers that be decided years ago that Albariño Rias Baixas was a ‘young wine’ and therefore must be drunk young, despite the fact that it’s common knowledge an Albariño can gain some complexity in the bottle, no amount of gentle persuading will convince them otherwise. We live in hope. The photograph was taken at the Xantar dos Cabaleiros or ‘Knights’ Banquet’, with friends from the wineries that produce the excellent Mar de Frades, Paco & Lola and Valdamor wines.

LAMPREY PIE – A DISH TO SET BEFORE THE KING

In accordance with a centuries old English court tradition, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II was presented with one on her coronation day in 1952. In the small Galician town of Pontecesures, on the River Ulla, lamprey pies are still very much a part of local tradtion. Every year, coinciding with the lamprey’s long journey from the ocean to its freshwater spawning grounds, usually from early January to the end of April, thousands of these prehistoric creatures are caught in special traps called ‘butrones’. Pontecesures, along with the villages of Arbo and As Neves on the River Miño, holds an annual lamprey festival in April where you can sample the beast in its many guises: smoked, stuffed, fried or braised, bordelaise style. The pies themselves are a work of art and coveted prizes are awarded at the festival for the most beautiful examples, taking into account tradition, presentation, creativity and, most importantly, texture and flavour. Many thanks to my good friend Carlos Cadilla for his excellent photo.