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For the love of loaches. April 11, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, wit and wisdom.
Tags: , , , , ,

Silence Dogood here. Our friend Ben and I were watching Michael Palin, surely the most low-key, genial travel host who ever lived, circumnavigating the Pacific last night in his series “Full Circle” (thanks, Netflix!). Last night’s episodes took him to Japan, South Korea, and China, and were fascinating, but also revolting. Revolting to me, anyway, because of one scene in the episode in Japan—an otherwise delightful episode—where Michael Palin went to a historic and hugely popular restaurant in Tokyo that prepared and served loaches in the traditional manner, a practice they had carried on for over 150 years.

Loaches, in case you don’t know, are fish. I had always had a soft spot for them because of one of my favorite childhood books, Lorna Doone. To this day, I think the author of Lorna Doone, R.D. Blackmore, brought to life the country of the novel’s setting (in his case, Exmoor in the 1600s) as perhaps no novelist besides Hardy has ever succeeded in doing. Though the noble outlaw Doones are so well drawn that they remain in my memory even now, and there’s plenty of stirring action in the novel, it is the land that dominates both the book and my memories of it.

Which brings me back to loaches. Loaches were central to the plot of Lorna Doone, the motivating factor that causes everything else in the novel to take place. No, not because of a battle over fishing rights, but because the hero of the novel, a farm boy named John Ridd, loved loaches so much that, on a fishing expedition, he allowed himself to drift a bit farther downstream than was considered safe or wise. As a result, he ended up in Doone territory, forbidden territory, and met the lovely girl Lorna Doone, and began a lifelong friendship and eventual love that would alter the course of Exmoor history forever.

I spent many years of my own childhood wondering what sort of fish loaches might be that would tempt someone to sneak into forbidden territory to catch them. My own parents loved seafood but hated fish—their sole exception was red snapper, which we probably ate with great ceremony once a year—so my childish imagination was fired by the idea of the loaches. I pictured plump, succulent, silver fish, with flesh as delicious, buttery and melting as that of the snapper, not a bit bony or “fishy.”

I didn’t even realize that I’d created this iconic loach memory until Michael Palin set foot in that historic Tokyo restaurant on our screen last night. He was ceremoniously served the specialty of the house, a loach soup with leeks and scallions. The “Full Circle” crew went back to the kitchens to capture how the dish was made.

OMG. Hundreds if not thousands of loaches—writhing, vaguely golden, cockroach-like, eel-like worm-fishes—were poured live from vats into pots full of sake, where they apparently imbibed the wine and passed into unconsciousness as a result. Then they were dumped into a pot of soup. Soon, they made their way to the table, where Michael Palin, as tradition required, ate the wormlike creatures whole topped with shredded leek and scallion greens. 

My screams and shrieks of horror had OFB covering his ears and our black German shepherd, Shiloh, cringing on the rug. Oh no, no. Surely the romantic Exmoor loaches of my childhood weren’t actually some kind of loathesome eel, writhing like millions of mealworms about to be fed to ravenous birds or reptiles. Gack!!! I was determined to find out.

Unfortunately, both Google and Wikipedia failed me this time. Seems as if every loach site, no matter what call words I type into the search bar, end up being about aquarium fish like clown loaches, which, thank God, nobody is trying to eat. I couldn’t manage to come up with even the name, much less description, of the famous Exmoor loaches so beloved of John Ridd. The closest I could come was the Dojo loach of Taiwan and the weather loach of Australia, both of which are apparently eaten once they get big enough.

Oh, my. Please, if anyone from Exmoor reads this post, I’d so love to hear from you about those famous Lorna Doone loaches, what they look like, how they’re prepared. I still really want to know. I think.

             ‘Til next time,




1. Chris Stacey - February 7, 2012

I’m curious about the Loaches in Lorna Doone too, having just come across them in the book and searched on Googele etc!

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