Lamprey Pie - History of Lamprey Pie

© copyright 2004 by Linda Stradley - United States Copyright TX 5-900-517- All rights reserved. This web site may not be reproduced in whole or in part without permission and appropriate credit given. If you quote any of the history information contained below for research in writing a magazine or newspaper article, school work or college research, and/or television show production, you must give a reference to the author, Linda Stradley, and to the web site What's Cooking America. 

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The sea lamprey (Petromyzon marinus), which evolved some 250 million years ago, belongs to a near-extinct family of jawless fishes. A lamprey is a long scale-less river fish which looks very much like an eel. Its downward slanting mouth consists of a large, tooth-lined sucking disc. Once it has latched onto the side of another fish, the lamprey opens a hole in its host by wiping its raspy tongue across the skin. The parasite then secretes an anticoagulant that keeps this wound open so that the lamprey can feed on the prey's blood and tissue.

The Lamprey Pie consists of this baked eel-like fish, set in cool syrup and covered with a large raised crust.

Most royal families of England were particularly fond of lampreys, as it was considered a delicacy at the English Courts.The tradition was for the people to present the monarch with a lamprey pie every Christmas.Baked lampreys were cooked in a syrup inside the pie. When the crust was opened, the liquid was mixed with wine and spices, and then spooned onto slices of white bread in a dish warmed over a chafer or hotplate. The lamprey was then cut into "gobbets a thin as a groat," and placed on top of the bread andsauce.

The City of Gloucester, in token of their loyalty to the royal family, presented a lamprey pie annually at Christmas to the sovereign. This was sometimes a costly gift, as lampreys, at that season, are very rare. The custom was discontinued in 1836, except on the occasion of coronations, because of the cost.

1135 - King Henry I (1068-1135) of England was known for his lust of eating the lamprey and is reported to have died from a "surfeit of lampreys," as the chronicles said, although most historians believe that he died from food poisoning. According to Charles Dickens (1812-187) in his novel A Child's History of England:

He spent most of the latter part of his life, which was troubled by family quarrels, in Normandy, to be near Matilda. When he had reigned upward of thirty-five years, and was sixty-seven years old, he died of an indigestion and fever, brought on by eating, when he was far from well, of a fish called Lamprey, against which he had often been cautioned by his physicians . . .

1200s - So great was the demand for lamprey in the reign of King John (1167-1216) of England, that he issued a royal license to one Sampson, to go to Nantes to purchase lampreys for the use of the Countess of Blois. The same king issued a mandate to the sheriffs of Gloucester forbidding them, on their first coming in, to be sold for more than two shillings a piece. According to the Royal Cookbook, King John also levied a fine of 40 marks on the city of Gloucester for failing to "pay him sufficient respect in the matter of his lampern."

1230 - The website Gode Cookery - Tales of the Middle Ages, reports a royal order to the sheriff in Gloucester in the 1230s that stated:

"...since after lampreys all fish seem insipid to both the king and the queen, the sheriff shall procure by purchase or otherwise as many lampreys as possible in his bailiwick, place them in bread and jelly, and send them to the king while he is at a distance from those parts by John of Sandon, the king's cook, who is being sent to him. When the king comes nearer, he shall send them to him fresh."

1472 - Platina, a.k.a. Bartolomeo Sacchi (1421-1481), a humanist, author and historian, wrote the first dated cookery book in 1472. The first half of his book discusses all kinds of food and spices, their nature, and their cultivation. The second half is drawn primarily from chef Martino d’Rossi and his Italian cookbook (most of Platina's recipes were borrowed from a manuscript written by Martino, who lived during the 1450-75 period).  In the English translated version of Platina's De honesta voluptate, by Elizabeth Buermann Andrews, he writes about an Eel Torta recipe, and also the fact that he doesn't like the pie:

Eels in a Torta - To boiled eels that have been cut into bits, add either milk from other fish or finely chopped soft fat. Cut up a little mint and parsley. Add an ounce of pine kernels, a like amount of raisins, a little cinnamon, ginger, pepper, clove, and mix. Then spread it into your crust. You should add a little best oil. When it is nearly cooked, dissolve two ounces of ground almonds in verjuice with saffron and pass through a strainer and gently spread this over the whole top. Palladius Rutilius is marvellously fond of this dish, even though it is not good.

1886 - Famous chef Charles Elme Francatelli (1805-1876), late maitre d'hotel and chief cook to English Queen Victoria (1819-1901), wrote the following on lamprey:

"one being the sea or marine lamprey, which is abundant at Gloucester and Worcester, where it is dresed and preserved for the purpose of being given as presents. The other sort, the lampern, is much smaller. This is to be found in the Thames and may easily be obtained at any London fishnger from the month of October till March, at which period they are in season. The lamprey is considered to be in best condition during the month of a April and May when it ascends the Severn from the sea for the purpose of depositing its spawn."

June 2012 - Queen Elizabeth, celebrated the diamond jubilee of her ascent to the throne, which marked the 60th anniversary of her coronation. Every Jubilee and Coronation in England, the people of Gloucester, England have sent a pie to the Royal household made from lampreys, a locally sourced eel-like fish. Because of a scarcity  of the lamprey in its rivers, the lamprey's for the Lamprey Pie were imported from the Great Lakes near the U.S.- Canada border. Lampreys got into the Great Lakes through Atlantic shipping canals in the 1920s and have threatened native fish since. Two pounds of slimy, but frozen lamprey, were shipped  to Gloucester

Sarrah Maccey, Operations Manager of the Gloucester Folk Museum, made the pie for the queen. She considered various ancient recipes, including one that cooks the creatures in a sauce of wine, vinegar, cinnamon, and lamprey blood, before being baked in a tall crust. The pie was made in the shape of the city's cathedral which was built more than 900 years ago



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