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Oxford Companion to Food

Oxford Companion to Food

By Alan Davidson

Published 2014

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Cyclopterus lumpus, a species with many remarkable features. The flesh is prized much less than the roe, and is sometimes quite inedible. And the fish has a strange ‘lumpy’ appearance and is equipped with a ventral suctorial disc. The colour of the thick skin is highly variable; blue-grey, yellow-green, and yellow-brown are common, but spawning males are to a large extent red. For some reason it has names in French and German which mean ‘sea hare’.

However, the most remarkable and puzzling aspect of the lumpfish is its edibility (or inedibility), which varies by gender and season. Davidson (1979) wrote as follows:

The lumpfish, however, causes puzzlement, at least in countries where it is not familiar. An agreeable perplexity is induced by studying opinions of it expressed by British authors in the past. Sir Thomas Browne, in 1662, recorded it as ‘esteemed by some as a festival dish, though it affords but a glutinous jelly, and the skin is beset with stony knobs after no certain order’. Parnell said that: ‘The flesh, when cooked, is soft and very rich, and is considered by some of the inhabitants of Edinburgh as a luxury.’ The force of the word ‘some’ is revealed by the additional comment that ‘there are few stomachs with which it agrees, in consequence of its oily nature.’ Buckland is more critical: ‘I do not like the flesh at all myself; it is like a glue pudding.’

Festival dish or glue pudding? The answer is both. There is a considerable difference between the edibility of male and female; which is why there are separate names for them in countries where the lumpfish is well known, such as Sweden and Iceland. And the female is edible at certain seasons but not at others. An Icelander told me that when females with roe were taken and the roe had been extracted, to make lumpfish caviar, what was left was really no more than a glutinous mass, unsuitable even for making fish meal. It goes over the side. The male, on the other hand, provides good eating.