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VIDEO: Lamprey Fishing in Touraine, France

VIDEO: Lamprey Fishing in Touraine, France

Georges Rouzeau - 2011-04-22

Philippe Boisneau was once a scientist specialized in ecology. In 1994, he left his field to become a professional fisherman on the Loire River. This morning he is checking his lamprey pot traps with the help of his friend, restaurant owner and chef Bernard Charret. An exemplary friendship between a local supplier and a chef.

What would France’s Touraine region be without the Loire? And yet the great river is not terribly endearing this morning, given the raw and freezing weather. A glacial wind from the east whips without respite along banks lined with willows, poplars and clumps of sedge. Right here, between Amboise and Chaumont, Philippe Boisneau has moored his muscle-propelled flat-bottomed boat designed for fishing in this longest of French rivers. Boisneau is one of only three remaining fishermen who make a living catching shad, eel and lamprey in the Loire, a profession decimated by the fickleness of seasons, climate change and fish populations. In all of France, there are only 500 professional fresh-water fishermen; fifty years ago there were 7,000.
Once a scientist specialized in migrating fish species and author of a thesis about the shad populations of the Loire Basin, Boisneau is also the president of the French union of freshwater fishermen. A unique fellow, he is an intellectual with plenty of practical experience, a scientist who dearly loves nature as well as a unionist who cares about his fellow fishermen and their difficulties. Fishing with Boisneau takes one further than expected; he curses the water primroses which have come all the way from the Amazon to invade the river and complains about the Corbicula, small freshwater clams from the Mekong Delta which are devouring all of the phytoplankton in the Loire.
His knowledge of the Loire environment is impressive indeed. This is a fisherman who practices sustainable, ecological methods and who means to get a fair price for his catch. His sole clients are ‘motivated’ chefs - not exactly legion in Touraine. If certain prominent cooks pose for the covers of gourmet magazines holding armfuls of Loire fish, many decline to use them in the kitchen, preferring salmon raised in Norwegian fish farms. With Boisneau’s friend Bernard Charret, owner and chef of Les  Chandelles Gourmandes in Larçay, it’s quite the opposite: Charret has even come to help him collect lampreys from his special pot traps.
Praised by Rabelais in the 16C, lampreys are surprising creatures with neither skeleton nor jaw. They have existed on earth for 450 million years, which makes them twice as old as dinosaurs. A thick tube pierced with seven external gill openings - one nickname is ‘nannie nine eyes’ - the lamprey is the prototypical parasite. With a ‘sucking disk’ for a mouth (said to have inspired Ridley Scott’s Alien), it attaches itself to its prey to feed. Very rich in haemoglobin, a distinctive characteristic that greatly interests scientists, lampreys are bled to death in the kitchen and are often served with a black sauce made from their blood. While lamproie à la bordelaise, Bordeaux-style lamprey, is still an emblematic dish of the Gironde region, recipes from the Touraine have largely disappeared due to the dramatic drop in the lamprey population of the Loire Basin in the 1990s. But the lamprey is making a comeback! Since 2008, millions of tons have been harvested in winter when the snake-like fish ascend the Loire to mate and spawn. Charret holds his in tanks where well water is kept at 12°C in order to inhibit the lampreys’ metabolism; thus he can serve them all year ‘round.
Boisneau and Charret met while fishing, of course. Boisneau was giving a demonstration of his art and livelihood, with a spotlight on the technique called seine fishing where the catch is encircled in a round net which is then hauled up onto the bank. Charret, who was there as a casual observer, was charmed by the fisherman’s personality and ecologically viable methods and knew that he wanted to work with him as soon as possible. The chef has found that fish which are often returned to the water because ‘no one is interested in them’ can be used in dishes that are, in fact, far more interesting than the standard friture de Loire consisting of deep-fried gudgeon, bleak and other small fish. He would rather offer whitefish - chub or freshwater bream, for example - in keeping with his penchant for local fare.
Here is a friendship that has withstood the test of time. This privileged relationship between a fisherman and a chef perfectly mirrors the qualities of the Touraine: fertile, generous and open to sharing.
Official website of the Tourism Committee of the Touraine Département
Where to order Philippe Boisneau’s catch
Les Chandelles Gourmandes
44, Rue Nationale
37270 Larçay
Tel: (33) 02 47 50 50 02
Where to stay
B&B and self-catering cottage ‘Le Clos des Augers’
Danièle and Philippe Hellio
Lieu-dit Les Augers
37270 Azay-sur-Cher
Tel: (33) 02 47 50 49 49

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