Lamprey: a delicious vampire underwater
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. In 2023, this celebration was declared a Festival of International 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 Miño River, 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.
The typical recipe is á arbense (“the Arbo style”), in a clay casserole, stewed in its own blood with white rice and toasted bread
Arbo welcomes tens of thousands of diners at the end of April to pay tribute to this fish, with an unappealing appearance, but nonetheless exquisite. 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 style"), 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.
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.
Dry Lamprey, Festival of Tourist Interest in Galicia
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. Currently this festival is celebrated in August and has been declared Festival of Tourist Interest in Galicia.