..not my cup of Lamproie

It was one of those humid mid-mornings in Bordeaux, circa spring 1982 that I had the good fortune of visiting Château Beychevelle (Saint Julien) for the first time, and also invited to stay for lunch. We where a motley group of British wine merchants, including some brewers from the north of England, a doctor from south London, an MW (who is now a famous wine journalist). We had spent that morning at Ch.d’Yquem with Monsieur Pierre Meslier, who showed us around hallowed ‘Y’ ground and poured us various recent vintages of the golden nectar straight from the barrel(s). I could not believe it. We finished off the tastings with his own 1976 Ch.Raymond-Lafon (Yquem’ s neighbor and his own 16 hectare property and home). An outstanding wine!

Arriving in Saint Julien from Sauternes, more than blessed by the nectar glow on our faces from the morning´s hard work, for some odd reason I thought we where going to Ducru-Beaucaillou and had not readjusted my own inner GPS when the owners of the chateau (Beychevelle) welcomed us at their front door, correctly in French of course, and we did a small and most welcome walk around the vineyard before luncheon. No tasting.

Gathering in the back garden we then went straight through to the dining room where an extremely formal lunch table was laid out for us all. No place names, so the brewers headed to the north end of the table, the wine merchants from St.James´s headed for the south end, and left in the middle was yours truly, the Doc, and a fellow who became known, for the rest of the trip, as Morse Code (I think if my memory serves me well, he was a very nice man called Sam Morse, a south west country wine merchant at the time). Now, nobody spoke French at all in our party. I had spent a year at a Swiss University doing my bit and then went onto Alsace for my Stagaire, so I could almost hang on in there if so needed. Well, they planted me next to Madame B. (on her left) to do any translations necessary. Course after course was served. Wine after wine, vintage after vintage (and remember we had spent the whole morning at d’Yquem topped up with a bit of Raymond-Lafon). A great lunch indeed. Three or four courses and four or five vintages into the lunch and then the big stuff arrived. It was the main course and Madame quite rightly introduced the dish as she had been doing so with the four previous dishes. I helped with the linguistics. Everyone go stuck into the 5th dish, it was a bit out of place for us, but at the same time pretty dam good. And it went very well indeed with their 1975 Ch.Beychevelle, I do remember that much, as I ended up buying some. A whole pallet! Then suddenly there was a raucous coming from the north end of the table. Not wanting to seem impolite and on behalf of the brewers, I kindly asked them to pipe down a bit as Madame B? was getting a little nervous about their situation. Massive giggles and laughter, maybe drunk, but whatever it was it could easily have been misunderstood.

Madame B? asked me if everything was okay? ”est-ce que tout va bien”?  So I then passed on the message and asked the brewers what was going on up there at their end of the table (of course they where full of wine) and the reply came. In husky, deep Newcastle nuicky-broon-brawl. “William, what are we eating here. What have they given us”? Now, between you and me, dear reader, I thought up until now that it was a sort of local beef stew dish. Quite delicious, rich, winey and went very well with that 1975 vintage. So I turned to Madame B? and asked her what it was that we where eating that was so delicious. She replied ‘Lampoie de la Gironde’. Now even I could work out it in a split second that Lampoie was the local, rather large fish from the river. We had just passed the day before the annual Lamprey festival in Libourne, on our way to various tastings.

Lamprey, fish animals antique illustration

To give you an idea of what the dish/recipe involves is thus: You must first hang the Lampoie (lamprey) by the head, while still alive, before cutting it’s tail to collect the blood. After being placed into boiled water and cut into sections, the lamprey is put to stew with leeks, red wine, onions, shallots, garlic, cured ham and some local mixed herbs. Now, before being served with garlicky croutons, the lamprey pieces are flambéed with Armagnac and the wine sauce is blended with the blood of the fish. In the past this dish was only ever served to Kings, Queens & dignitaries. The fact that we where being treated to this was, for me, an absolute treat and of course a first. When I leaned a little into the table to share the news with the brewers, in English, the boys from the black stuff where not impressed at all, and all five of them immediately put both knife and fork down on the table, like children demonstrating at an unfairness. They where not going to let another morsel pass their northern chompers, and definitely not this lampoie. I managed to find a way, in her language, to smooth things over a little. I told Madam B? that they where so full of food from the lunch that they just could not manage a bight more.  Madame B? (so elegant, sweet and so polite) replied loudly with her finest English accent. ”Maybe they ate too much bread before the first course”. She was quite correct of course, but de boyz from de north just could not hack eating fish like this.

Sadly for those who do actually treasure this dish and also the heritage it represents, it’s becoming less common, as lamprey fishing has been in steep decline there. In Bordeaux’s “lamprey capital,” Saint-Terre en Gironde on the banks of the Dordogne, where it has been a key activity since at least the eighteenth century, there are now (2021) only around 30 licensed lamprey fishers compared with around 150 about 15 years ago. And yet lamproie à la bordelaise does still feature on some restaurant menus. Mostly in winter and spring during the lamprey fishing season (December 1 to May 15) when the fish come in from the sea to breed.

Lamprey from Bordeaux cooked in a clay pot

For some, just the inclusion of the blood in the dish is sufficient to put them off. For others, it’s the creature itself. Not only one of the planet’s ugliest looking but a blood-sucking parasite. Shaped like a large eel, it’s jawless head has a funnel-like mouth filled with teeth for sucking the blood from the underside of the fish to which it attaches itself (the likes of cod, salmon, herring, mackerel and smelts, according to it’s environment). The body is also skinless and covered in mucus that has to be thoroughly cleaned off before cooking. It goes without saying, of course, that in Bordeaux the wine drunk with lamproie à la bordelaise is red Bordeaux and very often Saint-Emilion (I guess for it´s Merlot, Cabernet-Francness). Recently I cooked at home something similar using south Atlantic Mackerel. Okay yes, nothing to do with it, but I have to tell you that a slightly chilled Malbec (Argy!) really sorted out our lack of Claret at home. Red wine and fish eh!, well Mister Bond would not be happy with this, but it went very very well indeed, I can assure you of that. As for Madame Borie (Ducru-B!), well it turns out that she was in-fact the neighbor to Madame Aachille-Fould (Beychevelle) and it was indeed the latter who was our gracious host at that famed lunch back in the Spring of 1982.

Next Bloggy, I am on a world Chablis theme, and the lack of it to be found in Latin America. What on earth is going on down there you may ask. ”Evening all” W.P.H.