Local Fish Celebrated and Eaten
Published: May 22, 2013 (Issue # 1760)
Nadezhda Belyaeva / spt
Thousands of kilograms of smelt were prepared for visitors attending the Korushka Festival held last weekend at Lenexpo .
The annual Korushka Festival was held on the weekend, marking the start of spring in St. Petersburg. Fans of the fish, more commonly known abroad as smelt, headed to the Lenexpo Exhibition Complex on Vasilievsky Island, where thousands of kilograms of the popular fish were prepared for visitors to devour.
Starting at the end of April and going through to the end of May, korushka season fills the streets of St. Petersburg with the scent of fresh cucumbers. Such is its popularity in St. Petersburg that some regard korushka as the unofficial symbol of the city.
On average, smelt is no more than 25 centimeters in length and weighs less than 100 grams. It’s the main commercial fish of the Neva River and Nevskaya Guba (part of the Gulf of Finland between the Neva delta and Kronshtadt) and accounts for 80 percent of the total amount of fish caught in the area. Smelt also breeds in many rivers running into the Gulf of Finland.
The fish has been found in the waters surrounding St. Petersburg since the city’s founding. Peter the Great was known to be a fan, decreeing support for the fishermen who caught korushka. Some sources even say that the Russian ruler called it the “tsar of fish.” In 1708, while the city was still emerging from the swamps surrounding the Neva River, the first festival devoted to the fish was held. However, after the emperor’s death, the tradition of celebrating korushka fell out of favor. It was revived only in 2003, for the 300th anniversary of St. Petersburg. Since then the festival has been held annually.
According to local ichthyologists, this year has been a plentiful one for both korushka lovers and those who catch them. After three years of decline, the waters around St. Petersburg are once again flowing with korushka. However, when compared to the 1980s, when about 1,900 tons of korushka were caught per year in the eastern section of the Gulf of Finland, numbers are still significantly down.
For example, in 2012, there were just 327 tons of smelt caught, according to data from the North-West Department of the Russian Federal Fisheries Agency. Over the past 30 years, the size of the catch has decreased six-fold. In addition to the natural cycles in fish reproduction, the decrease is also connected to the high levels of water pollution and the activity of commercial fisheries.
According to Greenpeace research, more than 25 percent of wastewater in St. Petersburg is not purified at all, while the remaining 75 percent is poorly filtered. Moreover, the fines levied on local industries for water pollution are too small and do not cover the cost of restoring biological resources.
“Until the 1970s, St. Petersburg had no water purifying systems in place; all waste water was simply dumped into the Gulf of Finland where it remains on the seabed. Because of the construction work being done in the Gulf of Finland, these waste products move towards the surface. As a result, all fish, including korushka, absorb the toxins,” said Maria Musatova, press-officer for Greenpeace Russia.
“Even existing purifying systems are only for consumer waste and cannot deal adequately with industrial waste. So we do not recommend catching fish within St. Petersburg city limits. Any fish caught in the Neva can be a source of various toxins that are hazardous to human health. Some municipal wastewater is still released directly into rivers and so the fish may carry some viruses and infections,” she said.
Since korushka only come into the Neva to reproduce, the amount of toxins found in the fish are lower than in other fish, according to Greenpeace research. Yet, the standards in Russia are not as strict as they are in Europe. For example, if such levels of contaminants were found in western countries, the selling of all fish from the Neva would be banned, said Greenpeace specialists.
However, fish biologists plead for calm and urge the public not to fear the humble korushka.
“All toxins are absorbed by the bones, the skull and the gills. These are the parts of fish that we do not eat, so we can still enjoy eating korushka,” said Sergei Anatsky, a fish biologist who holds a Ph.D.
There are three types of korushka sold in the city. The first is the smallest, which is approximately the same thickness as a finger.
“This is usually frozen fish brought from the Baltic states. It does not smell of cucumber. When you smell this odor, you can be sure that the fish is fresh,” said Anatsky.
“There are two varieties of local smelt — standard, which is about 20 centimeters in length, and select, which measure more than 20 centimeters,” he said.
“The tastiest korushka are those that come from Lake Ladoga and are slightly longer than a finger — from 11 to 15 centimeters in length. The secret to their superior taste is that there is little moisture in these fish as the main challenge when we cook it, is to remove all the moisture. To recognize these fish, one should look for a thin specimen with a darkly-colored back and almost no roe. I advise not to wash them before cooking but rather to simply wipe them with a cloth so as not to add additional water,” he said.
The average price for korushka from Lake Ladoga varies from 50 to 100 rubles per kilogram. Other varieties of smelt sell for approximately 150 rubles per kilogram at city markets and from 240 rubles per kilogram in the supermarkets. However, if you visit a restaurant for your korushka, you can expect to pay an average of 1750 rubles per kilogram.
“We offer our guests fried korushka with lemon. It is a rather popular dish, but mostly among St. Petersburg locals because of the tradition to eat korushka during a certain season. For foreigners, smelt is an exotic dish,” said Anna Panteleeva, the general manager of the Marius restaurant at the Helvetia Hotel.
“The tastiest korushka are those that are fried and served with a crispy crust. The process of cooking is labor-intensive; one should first clean the fish, then roll it in the flour, carefully place it into a frying pan and fry for 4 to 5 minutes on each side. Then serve with lemon — smelt does need any garnish,” she said.