Sturgeon was a royal fish. According to ancient law, any sturgeon found on the beaches or caught in the Atlantic or the Baltic, belonged to the king. Curiously enough many recipes can still be found. Smaller sturgeons may have “escaped” the royal prerogative.
In the Middle Ages, some fish were regarded as absolute delicatessen. This was the case with the Sturgeon – whether of the European, acipenser sturio, or the Atlantic kind, Acipenser oxyrinchus.
Already, in the (Danish) Law of Scania from c. 1202, the Sturgeon is reserved the royal household and with no exception. Whales, on the other hand, the finder is allowed to deplete according to his means of transportation (as much as he can carry on his feet, his horse, in a wagon or on his ship). Later, in 1324, King Edward II of England declared sturgeon to be a royal fish. Technically, the British monarchy still owns all sturgeons, whales, and dolphins that inhabit the waters around England and Wales. Any sturgeons captured within the realm are still the personal property of the king or queen.
Sturgeons are long-lived, late maturing fishes. Their average lifespan is 50 to 60 years, and their first spawn does not occur until they are around 15 to 20 years old. Sturgeons are broadcast spawners, and do not spawn every year because they require specific conditions. Older specimens might measure up to two to three metres, with exceptionally large sturgeons have been recorded, reaching more than seven metres.
To impress the audience invited to a royal feast, we may presume their impressive length orchestrated that they should be served “whole”. A recent lucky find of a packed sturgeon in a wreck from 1495, tells us that the fish would be chopped up in manageable chuncks. Perhaps, they would have been boiled and afterwards placed in order on a dish or plank, and served with delicious sauces or condiments. Medieval collections of recipes, though, suggest that sturgeon may be served in any form – as filling for a pie, as fish-balls, or just as pieces in a soup. Sturgeon is a fatty and firm textured fish, and may easily be substituted by salmon, swordfish, halibut, tuna or whitefish. Taken as a whole, the different species of sturgeons are all more or less threatened, and sturgeons should not be served if caught, but released back into their waters.
We possess a few recipes telling us how to boil a sturgeon. Basically, you drop the pieces of fish into slow boiling water and steam it until tender. Then strain the broth from the fish, clean it of bones etc, and mix the meat with pepper, cloves, mace, and cinnamon. Steep bread in the broth, and mix this with ginger, saffron, salt and vinegar, pour over the fish and serve it hot. Other suggested sauces are greenish, that is mixed with parsley, mint and other herbs. (From Harley MS 279, British Library. ca. 1430)
In the Middle Ages, swim bladders of sturgeons were also highly priced as a source of isinglass, a form of collagen used historically for the clarification of wine and beer, as a predecessor for gelatin, or to preserve parchments.
The name isinglass was probably a corruption of the Dutch huisenblas, the gas bladder of the sturgeon (but also of other fish). The gas bladder is cleaned and dried, then the outer membrane can be peeled away. This membrane would be cut into strips and dissolved in boiling water for about 30 min. One litre of jelly is made from ca. 35 gr. of isinglass.
Two fifteenth-century cookery-books. Harleian ms. 279 (ab. 1430), & Harl. ms. 4016 (ab. 1450), with extracts from Ashmole ms. 1429, Laud ms. 553, & Douce ms. 55
Ed. by Thomas Austin, Thomas.
London, The Early English Text Society 1888