Guest columnist Karl Meyer: Baked baby sturgeon: A shortnose delicacy

  • Rock Dam’s dewatered cobbles CONTRIBUTED PHOTO KARL MEYER

Published: 6/2/2021 6:43:31 PM

Taste-sampling the baked baby Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon is among the rarest of rare culinary treats. It is one solely accessed by those with a keen love of the hunt and an exceptional pull of the palate. To partake of this rarity one must be willing to undertake the most minute and patient of foraging paths to this endangered species’ exposed and ephemeral presentation site.

This culinary marvel is only available at the sole documented natural spawning site of the federally endangered Connecticut River shortnose sturgeon, and only to be accessed sporadically during a brief two-month window from late April through the end of June.

The “bakery,” as it’s called, is an unnatural oven — a parching field of exposed river cobbles, approximately the size of the infield at Fenway, two miles below Turners Falls Dam. It’s essentially the dewatered shoals next to and downstream of a unique pool in the Connecticut just below an ancient natural, in-river escarpment known as the Rock Dam.

This late-spring, open-air microfeast actually cooks in the exposed riverbed itself, under the singularly unique conditions created by dam operators upstream by draining the banks of this endangered sturgeon’s critical spawning habitat on New England’s Great River.

It is at this place, under these conditions, that the ritual spring parching and outdoor baking of the rare and just-spawned young of this 100 million-year-old fish are to be foraged for unique and tiny table fare. This is a delicacy that, akin to twice-cooked pork, can be enjoyed several ways including by reconstituting the fertilized and unfertilized eggs, via adding hard-to-obtain river water and parboiling.

Or, as an even saucier sensation, tiny sturgeon can be sampled in their nearly microscopic early life stage, known as ELS sturgeon. The taste of the former, as you might imagine once that water is added, is akin to caviar. The latter, in turn, offers just the tiniest bites of miniature shortnoses — which are reported to taste like spicy chicken fingers, but “without any hint of that annoying crunch.”

Anyone dabbling in rare gustatorial delights and dealing in endangered species knows that the key reason creatures end up extinct is the failure to protect habitat. And this is an exquisite example of a tottering species that’s repeatedly left to its own culinary stewing in the Massachusetts reach of the Connecticut backbone and central artery of the S.O. Conte Connecticut River US Fish & Wildlife Refuge.

The hunt for exotic taste doesn’t get much juicier that this — with all the jigsaw protection mandates still ignored years after this haut cuisine menu should have been withdrawn in accordance with federal law and Endangered Species Act mandates under this dam’s Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) operating license that expired in 2018. So, vive la chance!

Baby baked sturgeon is the Holy Grail of river forage dishes precisely because it’s being left in the purgatory of this unnatural history without a watchdog or cop in sight! These unbelievable circumstances continues to make this rarest of delicacies available to anyone with a 50-power magnifying glass, a willingness to walk among baking rocks — and the keen eye and discrete pallet to pursue it.

Do note that painstaking and delicate scraping of rock surfaces to corral the tiniest morsels of flattened and desiccated baby sturgeon that so many hunger to sample will be needed here. A thimble with a stopper should work for bagging and securing this scintillating “catch.”

Further, please note that in both cases — Dried Egg or the Early Life Stages recipes — both need to be reconstituted with water before full preparation. At times there is actual water available in the “old” Connecticut’s “riverbed.” In that case you’ll have to walk the hot rocks out 30 or 40 yards to collect a dribble of natural river water. For some, this adds an air of authenticity.

Alternatively, you can scramble back up the failing Connecticut River banks at Rock Dam to the adjacent power canal — perennially full of water and long left to serve, unnoticed and unnamed, as the de facto “Industrial” Connecticut River here. Isn’t this just the craziest of wildlife refuges?

Grab yourself a bucket of that canal slosh, head back to the riverbed, and dribble it into your thimble. At that point the great caviar taste of twice-killed sturgeon eggs can be partaken of with a relish.

For Early Life Stage shortnose, simply place the re-softened exoskeletons in an iron frying skillet on the hot rocks, sear 30 seconds on each side; season to taste and enjoy!

Karl Meyer has been on the Fish and Aquatics Studies Team in the FERC relicensing of the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project and Turners Falls/Cabot hydro facilities since 2012. Meyer lives in Greenfield. He is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists.


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