Tuesday 11 March 2014

A Right Royal Fish, by Laurie Graham

I’ve never hankered after a Rolex watch and you can keep your marrons glacees, but there is one luxury item I do sometimes dream of: a pot of caviar in the fridge. It is a ridiculous fantasy. 30 grams of basic everyday Oscietra (I use the term ‘everyday’ lightly seasoned with irony) would currently set me back at least £50. As for premium Beluga, it is the stuff of Lottery wins, even supposing you can find any for sale.  And they’re just fish eggs, I tell myself. Ah, but what a fish. 

The sturgeon is a singular creature, a strange-looking Methuselah of an animal. Her spine is more cartilage than bone but she makes up for that with a bony external corset.  She lives her long life with languid deliberation, sucking in food between her toothless gums, making her slow way to the freshwater spawning ground of her ancestors by a strange climbing action. The barbels either side of her mouth often seem to be used like walking sticks.  She’s easy to catch. That the sturgeon isn’t already extinct is a miracle.

The Romans were quick to see the sturgeon’s value to an army on the move. A mature sturgeon can easily weigh 2000 lbs. Its flesh can feed a lot of soldiers, quite aside from the possible bonus of its delicious eggs.  Along the Danube the Romans built their forts where sturgeon were plentiful, at Carsium and Noviodunum and Nikopolis and adopted the methods of the local population, trapping sturgeon with willow fences. Once caught the sturgeon has the extraordinary ability to put its physiological functions on a low setting, a sort of self-induced coma, and so remain alive out of water for many hours. Fishermen tell stories of sturgeon that have survived for days, of others that have quietly wriggled their way back into the water and escaped. But fishermen tell all kinds of tall tales.

The Danube sturgeon has had a hard time of it since the Iron Gates dams were built in the 1970s and 80s. They are now effectively cut off from their ancestral spawning grounds. One wonders what it must feel like to battle hopelessly against a frustrated folk memory.  

The thing about the sturgeon that most astonishes me is how commonplace it was in the United Kingdom, certainly into the 18th century. The River Severn was our great sturgeon river, where they were caught in lave nets, an ancient technique for an ancient fish. But they were also to be found in the Wye, the Towy, the Great Ouse and the Firth of Forth. Sturgeon remains have been found in kitchen-middens at Westminster Abbey too though whether they were from Thames sturgeon or from fish that had been hauled to London from out of town we cannot know.

Since the reign of Edward II sturgeon have been designated Royal property so if you catch one the first person you call is the Receiver of Wreck. The officer with this rather enviable job title is actually a civil servant in the Department of Transport whose principal duties relate to flotsam, jetsam and lagan. Not a lot of Royal Fish calls, presumably.

Nevertheless, if you happen to land a sturgeon the Receiver of Wreck is bound to offer it first to the monarch. Buckingham Palace apparently no longer serves sturgeon so the last time the Queen was offered one she requested, as it had been kept alive, that it be re-homed in a Sea Life Centre. I wonder why she didn’t order it to be released into some tidal estuary. Perhaps it was injured.

So I must and can content myself with salmon eggs and just be grateful at least to have tasted sturgeon caviar, something my grandchildren may never do. I feel a little sad though for that rehomed sturgeon, paddling around in its aquatic theme park, dreaming of an altogether wilder freedom.

1 comment:

michelle lovric said...

Hmmm, self-induced coma could be so useful, in so many circumstances. But you can have my share of the eggs, Laurie.