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November 20, 2008 3:06 PM

Lamprey: 'tis the seasonal delicacy

Posted by Nancy Leson

Last night, Joseba Jimenez de Jimenez got his hands on the season's first Yukon River lamprey: a slithery delicacy dip-netted through holes in the river ice up in Alaska. And as early as this evening -- by tomorrow, for sure -- he and his his chef, Taylor Thornhill, will be offering the primitive eel-like fish as a seasonal special at the Harvest Vine, serving it to customers who have no compunction about paying $13 to $18 (a bargain, as any lamprey-lovin' European will tell you) to eat something that looks like a cross between a snake and a flute:

Unlike the bone-bearing eels prized by Japanese cooks (discussed in a recent post), lamprey "only have cartilagenous backbone, which pretty much melts away when it's cooked," says Thornhill, whose boss, as it turns out, is quite the lamprey-wrangler:

In fact, word has it that one of the Yukon River lamprey made it to Madison Valley alive last night, and (attention PETA-eaters, push the "back" button on your web-browser right now!) when it reared its ugly head, Jimenez grabbed it, and with a bold Basque "Buh-bye!" snapped it, rendering the fish motionless and ready to be cleaned. "Near their head they have seven gill holes, so you cut right behind that because their blood tends to be bitter," says Thornhill, describing the process. Lamprey are best braised or slow-roasted, he says, noting that last night Jimenez coiled a fresh one into a pan and gently roasted it to a state of utmost deliciousness in tomato sauce:

That's only one of the many preparations we can expect to find at Harvest Vine before the brief Yukon River lamprey season ends. "Last year," says Thornhill, "I'd juice a bunch of vegetables and braise them in that. They render quite a bit of fat for a fish." Perhaps that's because the boneless parasites feed on Yukon River salmon (we should be so lucky!) before beginning the 2000-mile migration up the icy-cold river. These fellas made it 400 miles up-river to Grayling before being caught and shipped to Seattle:

I'd love to get to Harvest Vine to make the river-lamprey's acquaintance, but until then, I learned a bit more, courtesy of Alan Davidson's classic reference, "The Oxford Companion of Food." Lamprey, he says, are:

"A very primitive fish, of the family Petromyzonidae. It is adapted to living as a parasite on larger fish, to the undersides of which it attaches itself by means of a suctorial toothed pad, through which it can such the blood of its victim. This unattractive lifestyle is matched by an unappetizing appearance: slimy, jawless, a single nostril on top, and seven little gill openings on each side. Although it counts as a sea fish, the lamprey goes up rivers to spawn and is indeed often met in estuaries or the lower reaches of rivers. It reaches a maximum length of 120 cm (48"), but is commonly half that size. The river lamprey or lampern, Lampetra fluviatilis, is a smaller fish, and so is the Arctic lamprey, L. japonica. Despite their striking lack of visual appeal [I'll say!], lampreys are edible and are greatly appreciated in some regions, for example Galicia and the north of Portugal."

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