HEAVE HO: In addition to gulping down fish, the festival abounds with games and competitions.
KLAIPEDA - Have you ever relished tasting a fish smelling like a cucumber? If you are looking for a new gastronomic experience, or an uplifted hangout in a lively crowd of numerous artisans, fish chefs and entertainers, on Feb. 12 you definitely have to come to Palanga, a Lithuanian resort on the Baltic shore, where the traditional Palanga Smelt Festival will take place. Every year, on a February weekend, the resort kicks off its much-anticipated festival, which allures everyone with fried, pickled and smoked fish, introduces local fishing traditions and tempts everyone to participate in the trademark smelt fishing competition.
If you are not up to grabbing a rod and hooking a sleazy frozen shrimp, or a mosquito larva on the barb, you may want to participate in an eating competition or take part in various organized games and competitions, ranging from anchor lifting to boat towing, and listen to folklore songs about fishing. During the event, smelt meals are prepared and served not only in the abundant cafes in Palanga’s Jonas Basanavicius promenade, but also directly in outdoor makeshift kitchens. It will be possible to taste different meals made of smelt not only during the event, but also during the whole of February in cafes with a special sign – a stylized smelt, which informs you that smelt dishes are available.
In the 900-meter long Basanavicius promenade, even the fussiest gourmands will be able to satisfy their whimsical craving for skillfully prepared smelt dishes – fried, pickled, smoked or baked in flour. As a rule, chefs are very good and vendors do not rip you off, offering an entire smelt for 1 or 2 litas (0.30 – 0.57 euros), while a bowl of fish soup costs approximately 5 litas. If you are not a big-time fish lover, alternatively you will be able to enjoy a barbecue or a kebab, gulping it down with hot locally made beer or wine.
Traditionally, the festival attracts hordes of people from all over the country and abroad, making it sometimes hard to pass each other without nudging another saunterer. In the wintry season as it is, a lively hangout with the tempting smell of fish definitely overshadows the possible lack of space in the event.
However, due to the reconstruction of Palanga Bridge, which will remain closed until the end of May, organizers of the Smelt Festival had to make certain corrections in the festival’s program.
“Obviously, the smelt fishing competition that usually takes place on Palanga Bridge is a centerpiece of the Smelt Festival. However, with its reconstruction ongoing, we had to reshuffle our program a bit, scratching out the smelt fishing competition and introducing a no less breath-taking carp fishing competition that will take place in a huge makeshift tub at Molinis Asotis (Clay Jug) Restaurant,” Nerijus Stasiulis, director of Palanga’s Culture Center revealed to The Baltic Times.
However, those that will sigh for the traditional smelt fishing competition will be placated by a quiz about… smelts. If you are up to it, you should get ready beforehand, preparing an exhaustive answer to, let us say, the question whether smelts should be caught with bobs instead of a swinger. Are you pondering over the right answer? Let me prompt you: smelts should be caught with a bob instead of a swinger, as the latter is a little too sensitive, considering the “nervous” behavior of the smelt, and registers all the touches, thus, causing numerous false hookings. Are you ready for another question? What is the right bait for smelts – mosquito larvae, frozen shrimps, worms or tidbits of a smelt itself? Gee, you are contemplating too long to win the smelt quiz! The fishing expert stands firmly for a smelt’s morsel, explaining that the first three aforementioned baits are pretty soft and do not resist a smelt’s teeth for very long, which is why attaching bait to the hook takes a long time.
Despite the cancellation of the traditional smelt fishing competition, smelt lovers will not be made to fondle a slimy carp from a makeshift pond – abundant local fishermen are ready to jump into their small boats and catch bails of smelts offshore. However, to tell the truth, this time it may be a lot more difficult, as fishery pundits complain that the smelt harvest in the Baltic Sea has petered out recently. Tomas Zolubas, head of the Fishery Department’s Fishing Regulation Division, reported in the Palangos Tiltas, a local Palanga newspaper, said that only 17 tons of smelts were caught last year, a drastic slump from 131 tons in 2000. The fish specialist explains that not only by the smelt population’s natural fluctuations in the Baltic Sea, but also by a more human intervention – while the fish quantity is on the decline, the number of fishermen anxious to pull out a cucumber-smelling fish is in an uncontrollable rise.
Nevertheless, the Smelt Festival’s organizers remain upbeat. “We have foreseen that. Therefore, our local restaurateurs and fish vendors had filled up their freezers with the fish in advance. Besides, our local fishermen will be out in the sea that day, and I am sure they will be able to bring ashore some smelts,” Stasiulis said gleefully. His optimism makes sense, as smelts, in the beginning of February, on their way to spawning grounds, usually pass along the Baltic Sea’s shores. “Before spawning, smelts are the tastiest, as they are full of nutritional stuff. After they spawn in the river Nemunas’ estuaries, they lose their taste,” Stasiulis, a long-time promoter and organizer of the Palanga Smelt Festival, maintained.
This year’s Smelt Festival, besides the fish-related amusements, will also highlight a tantalizing plunge of a few dozen health geeks into the chilly Baltic Sea waters. Healthy lifestyle promoters, united in the Palanga Health School, founded by a health-savvy Palanga resident, Dainius Kepenis, decided to combine their traditional seal-style winter swimming with the Smelt Festival this year. Are you up to the stinging plunge?