Hands up if you ever had a gold fish. I did. It was as bulbous as a puffer fish, the colour of an orange highlighter, mesmerisingly silky tailed and lived for exactly four days before it perfected the fish equivalent of a really slow backstroke... aka the corpse. Seeing it floating on the surface of my tiny fish tank I was distraught. I had dreamt of teaching it tricks, telling her (and I knew it was a her), my latest school gossip (Katharina Ochs had come into school with the new Sea World pencil case; Herr Dettweiler had painted red nail varnish on my cat painting without asking), but alas 'Sanella' (named after a German margarine brand) did not survive in my lonely, but perfectly manicured underwater paradise. We held a short funeral procession across the corridor and ceremonially sent her down the porcelain telephone. 40 minutes later I was back at the pet shop jabbing my finger at Sanella II, a black beauty with heavily lidded eyes and a tail like French chiffon. My fish obsession didn't last terribly long (and neither did Sanella II), but the thrill of hearing the ding of the pet shop door bell and the smell of pond algae and rabbit droppings hitting my nostrils remains to be one of the most exciting memories of my childhood. Now just imagine you aren't dropping 5 Deutsche Mark on a pet fish, but $2.2million. That is what a select few people will pay for one prized koi carp.
Where did Koi Carp come from?
Koi Carp originated in China, where they were initially bred to feed the Chinese army as they invaded Japan (somehow I imagine they taste like soap) and later for their beauty as pets. Systematic breeding of the Koi Carp with the most beautiful back patterns began roughly in the 1820's. Glass bowls and aquariums didn’t exist yet, hence the view from above was the most important. Their popularity peaked when the Japanese emperor Hirohito was gifted with Koi Carp for his imperial moat and boom, subsequently they were the most fashionable thing you could own. Breeders popped up all over Asia and the trend, like all cool Asian fads, eventually reached Europe. A wave of beautiful Chinoiserie prints, screens, porcelain and you guessed it, fish, spilled into the drawing rooms and ponds of the upper classes of the early 20th century. But even centuries earlier Koi carp had been revered in Chinese and Japanese culture for their beauty, endurance and tranquility. However, I did come across a rather baffling image of a baby wrestling a friendly looking, but enormous koi carp. These 19th century folklore prints show the infant Kintarō, a sort of Japanese baby Hercules with superhuman strength. He was even said to have the ability to speak with animals having grown up among them in the mountains. The myth was based on an actual person Sakata Kintoki, a warrior monk, who probably lived between 894-1185AD, but with time his story was exaggerated to the myth of Kintarō. What exactly the koi said or did to warrant this little brat leaping into the water and shanking him is not quite clear, but what struck me was the size of the carp. Like me, you probably think his scale is exaggerated, but we are wrong.
On the left: Saito Oniwakamaru Fighting a Giant Koi Carp" by Yoshitoshi 1839 - 1892
On the right: Oniwakamaru and the Giant Koi Carp Fight Underwater by Utagawa Kuniyoshi, 1835
The biggest koi in the world
There is a koi carp today that weighs the same as a huge dog, a twelve year old child or a very small woman. The gentle beast's rather fitting name is 'Big Girl' and she lives with Geoff Lawton... in Wiltshire of all places. Big Girl weighs in at a staggering 42kg (93lbs) and measures 4,1ft (1.25m) in length.
Geoff Lawton taking a bath with 'Big Girl' in 2007
Unsurprisingly, fish fan Geoff was more than koi (sorry) when he had her brought over to the UK in the early 2000s: "We know she's the largest coloured carp every exported out of Japan - where you find the largest ones - and there's certainly been nothing like her in Britain before." You can say that again, mate. That thing could swallow my terrier like a biblical whale. Geoff did not disclose what he paid for his pond whale, but it is assumed it was in the tens of thousands.
How to care for koi
To grow your own big girl you should take into account a few things:
- koi like clean water, filter it.
- They're like bodybuilders, give them protein and easy on the carp-ohydrates.
- Don't stress them out, keep your garden eagle free
- The bigger the pond the better, maybe reconsider that kitchen extension if you want to compete with Geoff's free willy.
- Genes matter, if your fish has measly parents don't waste your time and flush it.
- Make sure your kids like kois, these puppies reach an average age of about 20 or even 50 years.
Read slightly more useful instructions here.
The oldest koi
Every now and again a special koi comes along and gets old. I mean giant tortoise old. Remember there was that tortoise which was born when Mozart was alive? Well I take your tortoise and raise you the oldest living vertebrate pet ever: Hanako. She was born in 1751... I'll let that sink in...! She was 226 years old when she kicked the bucket in 1977 sending ripples through the koi community. Scientists determined her age by examining her scales, which have age rings similar to trees.
Hanoko lived in the same pond for 141 years and even responded when her owners, and there were a few, called for her. Some would say that she was like some sort of awesome water dog, which never goes deaf or incontinent. The aged Koi liked being patted on the head and hung out in her favourite shady spot on those hot summer days. Additionally, she also enjoyed cat puzzles, shortbread and having radio 4 on real loud. I sadly couldn't find information on her burial, but they probably didn't flush her down the loo. Hanako means 'flower girl' in Japanese, yet I would guess her 18th century owners would have reconsidered the 'girl' bit, had they known she was to become the oldest pet on earth. 'Flower Nan' anyone?
What does Koi fish taste like?
I was curious, as I am all too often am, about what it would be like to eat Hanako and found a bit of information on what kois taste like. Apparently not like soap, as I imagined, but tough, pondy and expensive. If you are considering munching your pet, place it in clean water for a while to get rid of the murky taste and then be sure to marinade and tenderise the meat. Or you can chop it up, deep fry it and add some quite ominous techno music, like this Dutch family's home video. You can find koi on the menu in some US restaurants, but it will set you back $400-$2.000 a fish.
But what about the Hummingbirds?
I initially set out to write a blog about the beauty of both koi carp and hummingbirds, because we just launched two new stationery designs bearing both specimens. However, I got slightly carried away with the kois and I only managed to find out two interesting facts about hummingbirds before I was too traumatised to continue. You will soon find out why. We all know hummingbirds' hearts and wings beat like a bazillion times a minute and they have a sweet tooth for nectar, but did you know that they have such tiny weeny legs and feet, that they are unable to walk? They almost never sit down and they can't even hop! What kind of bird can't even hop! Even a London pigeon with one toe can sort of hop? Secondly a hummingbird's tongue is so long for its size it is wrapped around the skull and has a forked tip for better nectar foraging. Imagine having a 3ft. forked tongue wrapped around your brain.
That is not all. While trawling the deepest corners of the interweb I came across some seedy food forums, where seedy foodies were discussing a seedy dish consisting of, you guessed it, hummingbird tongues. Apparently, it takes roughly 20 tongues to make one tablespoon ore d'oeuvre. The tiny tongues are pickled and then flash fried in butter or served on toast with a dollop of mayonnaise. They are tender in texture and sweet in taste, excuse me while I wipe the drool from my desk, but they sound absolutely delicious. Can I get that as a main?
Top end New York restaurants were said to have the tongues on a secret menu and all the diners, who ordered, claimed they were incredibly tasty before heading straight to hummingbird hell, where they came face to face with all 20 of their furious tongue-less victims. I am probably going to hell just for thinking about it, so I thought it best to stop before I book my ticket to Argentina armed only with a butterfly net and small saucepan.
So while you gaze into the eyes of my Koi and Hummingbird illustrations and browse our brand new koi carp and hummingbird stationery designs, try not to think about what they taste like, but instead think about a person who would love to receive one of our cards in the post. You can even personalise them with a name of your choice. I guarantee you won't go to hummingbird hell and Hanako would nod her old head in approval.
My original koi and hummingbird watercolours used for our new stationery
Check our Pemberly Fox's personalised Koi Carp and Hummingbird note cards