Meet the lamprey, if you dare: slimy, coiling horror of the sea since before there were dinosaurs. At first glance, there’s something almost floral about their mouths—until you realize you’re looking at a bouquet of tiny fangs some species use to vampirize lake trout and other fish. Appearances nothwithstanding, these primitive, jawless fish were actually delicacies in medieval England (and ancient Rome, and are eaten across Europe today). For the first time, centuries-old lamprey remains have been uncovered in London, near the city’s Mansion House train station.
Fossilized lamprey finds are rare despite their long history on the Earth because these eel-like fish are boneless. Before now, there have been only two other discoveries of lamprey remains in the United Kingdom, in York and southern Scotland. Even their teeth—the parts discovered near Mansion House—are unlikely to be preserved, as they are made of keratin, like hair, nails, and rhino horns. Alan Pipe, an archaeozoologist at Museum of London Archaeology who identified the teeth, suspects that these lasted because they were found in soggy ground near the Thames.
The find leads archaeologists to believe that it was quite a wealthy area in medieval times, because the lamprey was a favorite treat of the rich and powerful for centuries, but not without a cost. King Henry I was particularly fond of them, and is famously said to have died from consuming “a surfeit of lampreys” against his doctor’s wishes. Jean Bruyérin-Champier, physician to 16th-century French King François I, noted that the combination of lampreys with capons was notorious for inducing stomach pains, quipping that “only cooks can kill people, not only with great impunity, but also in receiving great glory from doing so.”
Yet the lamprey retained its royal status. In England, it fell to one city in particular to sate royal hankering. Until 1836, the town of Gloucester sent an annual lamprey pie in tribute to the monarch, and was once fined for dropping the ball with King John. More recently, lamprey pies have been reserved for special occasions. In 1953, the residents of Gloucester stepped back into their traditional role and whipped up a special lamprey pie for Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation, and followed it up with more for the 25th and 50th anniversaries of the occasion. In 2012, however, on account of lamprey’s disappearance from polluted local waters, Gloucester had to import the fish from the North American Great Lakes—where they are invasive pests—to prepare its gift for the 60th anniversary of the Queen’s ascendance, or the Diamond Jubilee. The Great Lakes Fishery Commission was more than happy to comply.
Such measures may not be necessary by the time Queen Elizabeth’s Platinum Jubilee rolls around in a few years. British environmental representatives have begun the process of reintroducing lampreys to the Derwent, Great Ouse, Trent, and Wear Rivers. Lamprey is still popular, after all, in Finland, France, Portugal, and Spain. The rivers’ other fish are probably less sanguine about the development.
Gastro Obscura covers the world’s most wondrous food and drink.
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