If you have ever done any serious eating [WORD ILLEGIBLE] the Alpine lakes of France or Switzerland, you must have tasted one of the most praised food fished of the world honored by the noble name of omble chevalier - the knightly omble . It is like finest and most delicate of freshwater fish," says Larouse Gastronomgue, an opinion I will gladly second [WORLD ILLGIBLE] is amended to read "the finest and most delicate fish found in fresh water" - for despite appearances, the omble chevalier is not a freshwater fish. It is a saltwater fish living in fresh water.
The curious and complicated history of this fish was dicated by temperatures. It requires cold waters. It was, and still is, a circumpolar fish of the Arctic Ocean, found north of Europe, Asia and North America. In the Ice Ages, following its favorite temperatures, imigrated southward, and, ascending rivers to spawn, arrived as far inland as the Alpine Lakes. The ice melted, temperatures rose, and the fish retreated to the Arctic again.
Shallow rivers warmed more quickly than deep lakes, some fish in the Alpine lakes, unable to traverse the temperature barrier of the rivers, were trapped in the lakes. If the lakes were shallow, they died out; if they were deep enough so the heat of the sun did not penetrate to the bottom, they survived, living in the depths.
Thus the omble chevalier is found in Lake Ganeva, whose mean depts is 500 feet and deepest point 1,000; in Lake Constance, whose floor is at 827 feet; and in others similarly hospitable. The shallowest lake known to me in which the omble chevalier lives is Lake Pavin in the French Ativergne, only 300 feet deep; but this lake was stocked with them artificially , and a it lies an an altitude of nearly 6,000 feet, its water remains cold enough so the fish thrives there. The towns fringing that lake now attract gourmets for their speciality of this delicious fish.
If the fish called the omble chevalier in the Alpine lakes is actually a saltwater fish which has changed habitats, which saltwater fish is it? The name is not much help, especially as it is often mislabeled on its home territory, where it is sometimes referred to as the ombre chevalier , but it permits confusing ombre with the fish sometimes called the umber in English, but oftener the grayling, for which the correct French word is ombrine . The omble chevalier is also occasionally called the fountain (or spring) salomon, also a mistake, for the saumon de fontain (salvelinus fontinalis) is a different fish - the Eastern brook trout of America, unknown in Europe before it was imported from the United States to stock European streams.
The word omble was orginally amble, a local word of the Swiss canton of Neuchatel, which has a 500-foot-deep lake. In the middle of the 15th century it was being spelled humble in French, evolving later into omble chevalier , of course, though it does mean "knight," as it was translated above, originally designated simply a horseman. The omble chevalier seems to mean the trotting-horse fish - which still doesn't tell us what it is. But omble alone is the French word for char (omble de mer), which should therefore mean "sea char," but actually it refers, like ombre , to the grayling. In the Bodensee (Lake Constance) area, the omble chevalier is also called the blue char. This is indeed the answer. The "unique" omble chevalier is simply a char, which would clear matters up if we knew what a char is.
The char is not overburdened with accepted labels. Authorities differ on its nature; some call it a kind of salmon, others a kind of trout and still others, slyly, a salmon-trout. Several fish called trout are really chars.
The original Arctic char is an extremely important food fish in the Far North, often the chief item in Eskimo diets; the economy of some North American Eskimo communities depends almost entirely on taking char and shipping it to Montreal, where it brings good prices as a delicacy.
The omble chevalier of the Alps is not the only landlocked char; the fish appears in deep lakes of North America, the British Isles and Scandinavia, where it has been less publicized. The characteristic dependence of the char on low temperatures accounts for the fact that while these fish rarely pass 1 1/2 pounds in the British Isles, they reach five pounds or more in the colder Scandinavian lakes.
The so-called Great Lakes trout cristivomer namaycush should probably be classed as a char rather than a trou, though it would be a somewhat divergent member of either family. Individual specimens have been taken weighing between 50 and 80 pounds, though most of those which reach the market weigh about 10. THe Great Lakes trout is chiefly fished commercially, but is a good game fish also. It is now threatened by pollution, for chars not only need cold water, but pure water.
Anyone brought up on the Atlantic seaboard of the United States, as I was, is likely to consider the Eastern brook trout as the very archetype of the trout, but since it belongs to the genus Salvelinus , it is not a trout at all, but a char. (The trout genus is Salmo.). The brook trout certainly classifies as a char by the temperature test. Most brook trout prefer the higher, coolier water of the streams in which they live, but some individuals break away from populations which ordinarily spend all their lives in fresh water, and return atavistically to the sea. This never happens south of Cape Cod, although there are Eastern brook trout as far south as Georgia.
Another misnamed char, the Dolly Varden trout Salvelinus malma is an exception to the rule that chars are good game and table fish. Found off the northern Pacific coast of North America; off Russia, particularly the Kamchatka Peninsula, anf off northern Japan, it is only mediocre eating, is not prized as a game fish and is highly unpopular because, a persistent predator, it destroys large quantities of salmon eggs and young salmon.
One last question about the char: Where did it get its own name? It seems to have come from the Old English ceorria , turner, referring to the way the fish swims. The namers of the char were struck by the same characteristic of the fish as the namers of the omble chevalier .