Monday, July 15, 2019

Eating Eel on the Curonian Spit

We recently visited both Poland and Kaliningrad Oblast, which is an exclave of Russia. They are joined at the Baltic Sea by the Vistula Spit, a peninsular stretch of land about 56 miles long, which separates Vistula Lagoon from Gdansk Bay in the Baltic Sea. The Strait of Baltiysk is an opening in the Vistula Spit that allows ship access from the Baltic Sea into the Vistula Lagoon, providing port connections for both Elblag, Poland and the city of Kaliningrad. When we flew from Warsaw to Kaliningrad we flew over the Vistula Spit and I got some photos of it from the air. 
A Landsat aerial view of the Vistula Spit from Wikipedia. 
A photo of the southeastern end of the Vistula Spit from our airplane. 
A piece of the Vistula Spit from the airplane. 
The Strait of Baltiysk from the airplane. 
The Strait of Baltiysk and a piece of the Sambia Peninsula from the airplane. 
The Curonian Spit is a similarly situated peninsular stretch of land about 61 miles long, further northeast, that joins Kaliningrad Oblast and Lithuania at the Baltic Sea, and separates the Curonian Lagoon from the Baltic Sea. The only Baltic Sea access to the Curonian Lagoon is through the Brockist Strait at the far northern end next to the city of Klaipeda, Lithuania. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its smallest width is .25 miles near the village of Lesonoy, Kaliningrad Oblast, and its widest width is 2.36 miles near the village of Nida, Lithuania. 
From Wikipedia
The Sambia Peninsula connects the northern end of the Vistula Spit and the southern end of the Curonian Spit. The city of Kaliningrad (known as Koenigsberg when it was occupied by East Prussia) is at the southeastern base of the Sambian Peninsula and connected to Kaliningrad Bay in the Vistula Lagoon by the Pregolya River. The village of Zelenogradsk (known as Cranz when it was occupied by East Prussia) is at the northeastern end of the peninsula where it connects with the Curonian Spit. 
Both the Vistula and Curonian Spits connected by the Sambia Peninsula. 
We took a tour with a guide from the city of Kaliningrad out to the Curonian Spit, just short of the Lithuanian border. On the tour we got to walk to both the Baltic side and the Curonian Lagoon side of the spit, visited sand dunes and a dancing forest, and on the way back visited the beautiful town of Zelonogradsk which has many very entertaining monuments dedicated to cats. 
Sand dunes with the Curonian Lagoon in background.  
Baltic Sea from the Curonian Spit. 
Trees growing in sand on the Spit.
Lichen on a tree.
A few of the "dancing" trees. 
Just before getting to Zelonogradsk, near the southern end of the Curonian Lagoon, we stopped for dinner at a small restaurant I don't even know the name of. It had a fun atmosphere, including a Russian proprietor that spoke just bits of English and who was quite a character.  Taxidermied heads of various African antelope (wildebeest, eland, impala, springbok, etc.) adorned the walls, a stuffed wolverine was near a fireplace (I'd never realized that wolverines were native to Baltic countries)  and we sat at a large wood picnic-like table.

I ordered an egg and cucumber salad which was fantastic, maybe the best salad of the trip. It was nice and chunky and flavorful.
Judy ordered sauerkraut, which turned out to be lightly fermented cabbage. It was more cabbage, than what I think of as sauerkraut, and was also very good.
Our guide's English was marginal and she had to describe to us the available fresh fish. When it came to eel, she could not give the English name, but described it as looking like a long black snake. When I mentioned I wanted to try the eel, she said it was big enough to feed two people and we should not order any more fish. Judy had considered ordering Baltic salmon, but was okay going with the eel. As we talked with our guide I learned that most Russians don't eat eel as it is too expensive. I also got the impression that our proprietor had captured the eel in the lagoon using some sort of a barrel trap.

European eel larvae are born from eggs in the Sargasso Sea,  a region in the North Atlantic Ocean bordered on the west by the Gulf Stream, on the east by the Canary Current, on the south by the North Atlantic Equatorial Current and on the north by the North Atlantic Current. The eel larvae drift to Europe and as they approach the European coast they turn into glass eels, a transparent stage. They migrate upstream, or stay in a lagoon or lake, and turn into an elver, a miniature eel. As the eel grows it turns brownish-yellow and is known as a yellow eel. After 5 to 20 years the eel becomes sexually mature and its flanks turn silver and it becomes known as a silver eel, then begins its migration back to the Sargasso Sea to spawn. These adult eel are normally about 2 to 2.6 feet long. 
Photo of an adult European eel from Wikipedia. 
Life cycle of the European eel - from Wikipedia.
The eel was baked and arrived whole (head to tail, but sans innards) at our table on a large silver tray. A large pair of silver tongs accompanied the plate and our Russian proprietor made hand motions showing we should grasp the eel with the tongs. I did so, but the backbone kept the eel from breaking into pieces, so a knife was employed to sever the backbone and complete the process.  

The skin of the eel came off easily. It was quite salty and in parts kind of crispy. I'd made a point of making sure the eel was not over-done and our guide said it was very fatty and over-cooking would not be a problem. She was right, the eel was very moist and easily pulled off the backbone which had three ridges on it. The flesh fell apart at the touch of a fork and had a wonderful savory, slightly sweet taste. It fed Judy and I and we shared some with our guide. 
A section of the eel with the skin detaching and the flesh beneath it. 
The tail, the last part to be eaten.
I was a little startled when I got the bill afterwards. Our drinks were 50 rubles each, about $.78. My salad and Judy's sauerkraut were 280 rubles each, about $4.39. However, the eel was 5,000 rubles, about $78.39. 

I've subsequently wondered about the bill, whether we got taken by the proprietor, or perhaps our guide was in cahoots with the proprietor, or is eel just that expensive? I would not have thought either of the first two questions prior to the bill.

The answer may have arrived in researching for this post. I find that the European eel is listed as critically endangered by the IUCN Red List and landings of the glass eel in the Curonian Lagoon have declined 50% in the last ten years and 90% since pre-WW2. The EU adopted an eel regulation in 2007 by obliging member states to develop national management plans with the objective of permitting escapement to the sea of at least 40% of the silver eel biomass. They were also obligated to establish authorization lists of vessels, fishermen and sales and marketing bodies. Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania and Sweden have all established national plans, but Russia, which is not part of the EU, has not (with the notation that the eel is "not considered rare in Russian part of the Baltic" which must be sarcasm as the report states that the "whole European stock is considered to be a single panmictic population" although there are "geographical differences in population dynamics"). 

1 comment:

  1. It was really a mind game for me to eat this. I kept thinking, "It's just fish," but it looked like a monster from a horror movie. I must confess that it was incredibly tasty, but now that I know it is critically endangered, I feel bad about having enjoyed it.