Lampreia (Sea Lamprey)

If you like your seafood cooked in blood, Portuguese lampreia is right up your alley.

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Lampreia Sea Lamprey
What makes a food a delicacy?
According to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, it’s “something pleasing to eat that is considered rare or luxurious.”  For The New York Times, it’s often when foods once eaten only by the poor become attractive to the wealthy because those foods are now rare.  In Portugal, a delicacy is usually something with limited availability that, yes, raises its price, but still represents a continuation of historical traditions and local flavors, just without the pomp and circumstance.  Lampreia, or sea lamprey, is a prime example of this.  (See also: Sardines.)
Sea lampreys look like eels, but they are actually different species, though Americans sometimes mistakenly call them “lamprey eels.”  There are multiple species of sea lamprey in Portugal, but petromyzon marinus is the one most frequently consumed here.  (They are found throughout the northern Atlantic.) Lampreia has a cartilage skeleton but no bones, a jawless, tooth-filled, sucking mouth, seven orifices along each side of its body, and no scales or fins.  But it’s a fish.  Old-school Portuguese call them chupa pedras or stone suckers, and flauta de sete olhos or seven-eyed flute.  There may be some double entendres going on there.
lampreia minho
Seven-eyed flute. Image source: Público.
sea lamprey mouth
Who’s hungry for dinner? Image source: Museu Virtual da Biodiversidade.
Despite the name, sea lampreys hatch in rivers – in Portugal, this is primarily the Minho River system in the north – migrate to the ocean where they live until reaching maturity, then return to rivers to spawn.  That typically occurs during the months of January through March, peak season for lampreia fishing.  And eating.
Sea lampreys are referred to as “parasitic” fish because they use their mouths to latch onto other fish and suction out their flesh and blood. This makes them “efficient killers” in the US Great Lakes, where they are an invasive species.  However, in Portugal petromyzon marinus is under threat due to the construction of river dams. Some enterprising Americans tried to export Great Lakes sea lamprey to Portugal, but the mercury levels in the Great Lakes were too high for EU standards. (‘Merika!)
There are various ways to prepare lampreia, but one of the most traditional is lampreia à bordalesa.  That translates to sea lamprey cooked in the “Bordeaux style” stewed in a sauce made with red wine and the blood of the lamprey, typically served over rice and slices of toast.  The rice may be plain or arroz de cabidela, which is also cooked with blood.  (There are several traditional Portuguese cabidela dishes of meat cooked in animal blood, the most popular being with chicken.)  You can check out a YouTube video of how lampreia à bordalesa is prepared from Portuguese national treasure Necas de Valadares, a guy in his kitchen with rudimentary culinary tools and video editing capabilities.   
So, how does it taste?
lampreia fork
Have you ever been the lone foreigner at a restaurant counter where the locals watched you take pictures of your fork? I have.
Well, sea lampreys are denser than most other fish, but not as fatty as pork or beef. Also, since they are caught during spawning season, you may be served a female lampreia with the roe, or sea lamprey eggs, still inside, which are small and somewhat mealy compared to other types of roe.    
lampreia roe
Lampreia roe circled.
More than the texture of the lamprey, however, what stands out to me is the strong taste of the sauce.  For one thing, it contains bay leaf, and if you use too much, it can become bitter.  For another, cabidela is always made with vinegar to prevent the blood from coagulating, which lends a vinegary taste to the final product. I am not a picky eater by any stretch, but there are two foods I really have to hold my nose in order to eat: vinegar, and ketchup, which is made with vinegar, and is a vile abomination of the noble tomato.  Got a fancy-pants $200 bottle of balsamic vinegar imported straight from Modena, Italy?  You can keep it.  So, I’m afraid that I failed to appreciate this Portuguese delicacy in all its gory glory. I dutifully finished only one piece of the lampreia, and left the rest of the dish untouched.
For the record, I love blood sausage, and Portuguese morcela is delicious. But I think I would have to try lampreia again served literally any other way in order to be able to finish it.  
Not everyone here is a fan of lampreia and it’s not cheap either.  My serving for one cost 65 euros, which I basically donated to the restaurant.  No wonder I couldn’t convince anyone to try it with me.

The Verdict

I tried so you don’t have to, but I hope you do! 
If I haven’t managed to convince you to go for the sea lamprey the next time you’re in northern Portugal, you could instead try lampreia de ovos, a lamprey-shaped dessert made out of eggs and sugar.  (Eggs in Portuguese desserts is a theme here, as I’ve talked about before.) It usually makes a showing during Christmas in Portugal, right before lampreia comes in season.
lampreia de ovos
Lampreia de ovos. Image source: Mulher Portuguesa.
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