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Michigan’s blood-sucking parasite is Britain’s royal delicacy

In 2002, Martin Kirby, a Journalist and resident of Gloucester, England had a problem. Queen Elizabeth II’s Golden Jubilee was fast approaching and he wanted to celebrate the occasion with a traditional lamprey cake. Finally, for the Queen’s coronation in 1953, the city had provided the new monarch with a truly epic cake: a 42-pound, 18-inch-high pastry masterpiece decorated with the royal coat of arms and crown.

Kirby is a founding member of the Court Leet of Barton St Mary, a group of Gloucester history buffs who have brought back centuries-old traditions like appointing a ‘mock mayor’. “We came up with the idea of ​​reviving the lamprey cake for the monarch in honor of the Queen’s Golden Jubilee,” says Kirby. Gloucester’s medieval custom of conjuring up seafood-filled pies for the royals was revived in 1953, and Barton St Mary’s Court Leet wanted to bring it back once more.

The only snag is that sea lampreys, which once roamed the River Severn in abundance, were on the brink of extinction in Britain. “We can’t use lamprey from this country because it’s a protected species,” explains Kirby. “Gloucester City Council didn’t know where to get the lamprey. But I did.”

The sea lamprey, or Petromyzon marinusShe looks like something dug up from the depths of Hell. Almost unchanged over the last 360 million years of evolution, each of these three-foot-long “living fossils” resembles eels or fish, but happens to be neither. These parasites have a gaping sucker ringed with a row of teeth for a maw. After attaching themselves to the sides of other cold-blooded swimmers, they use their serrated tongues to grate away scales and suck blood, slowly killing their prey.

Despite their uncanny resemblance to the Sarlacc war of stars, Lampreys have been a delicacy in England for centuries. In the 12th century, King Henry I loved her so much that, according to the chronicler Henry of Huntingdon, he died in Normandy in 1135 of “an excess of lampreys”. This unfortunate event may have been the reason why the citizens of Gloucester decided in 1200 not to send King John lamprey cake. But the monarch was so upset that Gloucester “didn’t give him enough respect in Lampreys” that he fined them in revenge.

Sea lampreys in Galicia, Spain, where they are considered a delicacy.
Sea lampreys in Galicia, Spain, where they are considered a delicacy. Miguel Riopa/Getty Images

From then on, Gloucester supplied the royal court with lamprey pies for special occasions. In 1229 King Henry III. so eager to get his share that he declared, “No one shall buy or sell lampreys until John [the King’s cook] is said to have taken as much as is required for the king’s use.” In 1917, with England engaged in a war, the monarchy decided to abolish the tradition, only to revive it for the queen’s coronation. In subsequent years, lamprey supplies dwindled and pies fell out of favor again.

But when dams and industrial pollution destroyed the lamprey’s spawning grounds in Britain, these resourceful vampires made their way from the Atlantic to the lakes and rivers of North America via artificial waterways. In the UK they are protected but across the pond they are a dangerous invasive species.

“They’re the killer bee-evil-cousin-at-the-buffet that nobody wanted,” says Marc Gaden, communications director and legislative officer for the Great Lakes Fishery Commission. “They’re really, really destructive.”

Sea lampreys are native to the North Atlantic, but until humans transplanted them, they had no place deep in North America’s interior. Beginning in the late 19th century, lampreys made their way down the Erie Canal into the Finger Lakes. By 1835 they had made it as far as Lake Ontario, where they stayed for decades thanks to the natural barrier of Niagara Falls. In 1938 they appeared in flocks in Lake Superior and around the Great Lakes.

“It’s a bit like a perfect storm,” says Gaden. “They are not very picky eaters. There are many fish they like – trout, zander, sturgeon. It’s an open buffet with nothing holding you in check.”

Larger and more voracious than their North American cousins, invasive lampreys quickly began decimating local fish populations. A single female lamprey lays between 30,000 and 100,000 eggs at a time. Because soft silt at the bottom of the Great Lakes tributaries is an ideal spawning ground for lamprey larvae, their numbers can grow rapidly.

Dave Magne, a US Fish and Wildlife Service technician checking lampricide levels in Manistique River, Michigan.
Dave Magne, a US Fish and Wildlife Service technician checking lampricide levels in Manistique River, Michigan. Marlin Levison/Getty Images

In the 1960s, sea lampreys were killing 100 million pounds of fish in the Great Lakes each year. 85 percent of the remaining catch still showed lacerations and circular tooth marks. “They leave horrible, bloody wounds that kill the fish from infection,” says Gaden.

Thanks to decades of culling, conservationists have managed to keep sea lampreys at bay to some extent. “We often joke about when [sea lampreys] like bunnies or puppies looked like, we might not have society’s blessing to keep them under control, but in this case, nobody minds,” says Gaden. Despite this, the Great Lakes Fishery Commission still has a serious surplus of lampreys. When Gaden first got the call from Gloucester in 2002, he was only too happy to send it out.

“Marc Gaden has lamprey knee-deep, so he FedEx them over to us,” says Kirby. He advised the City of Gloucester to do the same for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. Gaden’s lamprey ended in an architectural masterpiece shaped like Gloucester Cathedral.

According to Kirby, the good folk of Gloucester drew inspiration from medieval recipes for their pie. For security reasons, the Queen didn’t actually partake in the cake, so flavor wasn’t too important. “It’s a symbolic thing now; It’s not actually eaten,” says Kirby. “When we were making the 2012, our local TV crew cooked up some lamprey and mixed it with bacon and some mashed potatoes. They said everything was fine.”

Since that first cake 20 years ago, Gaden has personally traveled to Gloucester and befriended Kirby. “I am the supplier of lamprey to Gloucester City Court Leet and I have a certificate to prove it,” he says, laughing.

He cannot yet say whether his services and lampreys will be requested for the forthcoming coronation banquet. “Whether they have one for King Charles III. I don’t know, but I’m ready,” says Gaden. “I can only tell you that I am very happy to be part of this tradition.”

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