Investment Portal of the Arctic Zone of the Russian Federation

A Big Feast for a Small Fish

How least cisco has come to symbolize the North of Karelia and how the event in its honor is conducted

10 october 2022

The Ryapushka (Russian for least cisco) Festival took place on 8 and 9 October in Voknavolok, a historic Karelian hamlet. The festival began just three years ago, in 2019, yet it already dominates the fall in the Northern part of Karelia. Its primary purpose is to introduce guests to traditional whitefish catching and culinary customs of Karelian villages.

While smelt is the primary fish in Saint Petersburg, and its fresh cucumber scent will always be associated with the homeland for those who live in Russia's Northern Capital, least cisco is unquestionably the fish of choice in Karelia. Here, this small fish is especially revered, and its exquisite taste is regarded as a benchmark.

"Least cisco is a whitefish species, worth of a royal feast. Also, it has the tastiest roe of all the fish species we have in Karelia," says Olga Belonogova, a gastronomy partner of the Ryapushka Festival.

It isn't easy to obtain this delicacy. In mid-autumn, when rivers and lakes are already freezing over and the fishermen's hands get numb from the cold, cisco migrate to spawn. Setting and pulling nets, as well as untangling catch out of them, take great expertise and endurance. Even bigger skill is required to "milk" the cisco, or to get the roe out of it.

"During the high fishing season, we observed how the silver cisco glimmer in the nets and how the stream of fish flows from bucket to bucket, and we couldn't take our eyes off this show. It was also interesting to watch the fish being cleaned; local craftsmen do it very deftly, with just one finger, and it's a very meditative sight. And milking - for someone who hasn't seen the cisco, "milking fish" would sound pretty wild. We realized that cisco is truly worthy of a big cultural event in its honour; moreover, it gave us a sign itself," admits Alina Khovanskaya, an employee of the Sreda Cultural Development Centre, one of the Ryapushka Festival organisers.

The event takes place in the runesinger hamplet of Voknavolok, located on the gorgeous shore of Lake Verkhneye Kuyto. This 400-year-old place has had cisco fishing as a fundamental cultural aspect for centuries.

In 2019, the inaugural Ryapushka Festival took place. Fishing teams competed for the biggest catch, as well as in untangling the small fish from the nets, cleaning and "milking" it. The yearly fishing event saw participation from 11 teams. The winning squad was the Zeppelin crew, who hauled in about 5 kg of fish from Verkhneye Kuyto.

All guests of Voknavolok were able to enjoy the delicate flavor of cisco since the event had a strong culinary component. Several chefs prepared fish using modern renditions of traditional recipes, while also teaching workshops in Northern and Arctic cuisine.

The Gastronomic Map of Russia project was presented by Yekaterina Shapovalova, a special guest of the festival and the author of numerous books about the cuisine of Russian regions. The Karelian cisco will also earn a spot on this map.

Visitors to Voknavolok were offered tours of the 400-year-old village, listened to lectures on Karelian cuisine, learned how to cook traditional meals and were taught the skill of netting after viewing the spectacular contests of fishermen and feasting upon their catch. Local artisans' traditional products were also available for purchase at the fair.

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