Monthly Archives: February 2013

Preparing, Sourcing & Cooking Eel

The last of a trilogy of posts on the subject of eels. This time a recipe for an eel stew and some help with preparing them.

Sourcing Eel

The first time I cooked with eel I used wild ones – something I won’t be doing from now on; the sustainable cook as we have learnt buys only farmed eels. Ask your fishmonger if he can get them for you. If he can’t then you have four options: (1) go to a fishery that supplies eels where you are most likely to have to buy in bulk; (2) if you live in or near London, go to an eel, pie & mash house and pick some up there; (3) order some frozen ones already cleaned from the very good people at The Fish Society; (4) catch some yourself in an eel trap. If you live outside of the UK, eels are much easier to find.
I remember getting my eel order from Dave Yarwood from Out of the Blue in Chorlton. He had driven all the way to Sandbach at some god-awful time in the morning only to get there to find no one around, though he found a note on the door of the suppliers saying the eels were in a bag in a stream round the back! I arrived at his shop and there they were – three freshwater eels swimming around in a polystyrene box. I got a taxi back home with three eels sloshing about in their tank – quite a surreal experience, I can tell you.

eels

Preparing Eel

There’s a good chance that if you are going to have to do away with them yourself, this is because eels begin to break down very quickly after death. There is a lot of advice out there on what is the best way to do this. If you look in English Food by Jane Grigson says to ask your fishmonger to do the dirty work. It used to be thought that eels had to be skinned whilst still alive, but this is not the case. Larousse Gastronomique gives you these instructions on how to prepare an eel:

To kill an eel, seize it with a cloth and bang its head violently against a hard surface. To skin it, put a noose around the base and hang it up. Slit the skin in a circle just beneath the noose. Pull away a small portion of the skin, turn it back, take hold of it with a cloth and pull it down hard.

Well it’s not quite as simple as Larousse makes it sound; killing an eel is not like killing a regular fish, i.e. one thump to the back of the head and it’s gone, no, they keep on wriggling and writhing for a long time after you’ve ‘killed’ it. The best thing to do is to put the eels in iced water or in the freezer until they become very slow and docile, then hit them hard against a wall, stone or some other sturdy surface. You’ll find that after several hits that it is still moving about; it’s quite distressing, but the eel is dead, though its autonomic nervous system takes a while to shut down, though I’ve no idea how this happens and why it’s so different to other fishes. You can now either try the skinning method described above or behead them and then skin them. Have a look here at my original eel post from Neil Cooks Grigson, scroll down to see a rather gruesome video of some headless eels swimming about in my sink.

To skin them use a pair of pliers and a little salt to help get a purchase on the skin. Once you have got going the skin comes of satisfyingly easy like a long thin sock. Don’t be alarmed if the eels start moving again – this is from the salt triggering their nerves to start firing.

Now gut and clean the fish; make a cut from its anus – you’ll see it, about halfway down – to the neck end and pull away any innards from the rib cage. Give it a rinse and you are done.

Sedgemoor Eel Stew

One thing I have not mentioned is how well eel eats. It really is a delicious fish – its flesh is mild and delicate, don’t be put off by its snake-like form and sliminess. It is similar to salmon, but a little richer and much moister due to its high fat content and they are not in the least bit muddy-tasting. This is the first eel recipe I ever cooked and it is by far the best. It appears in English Food by Jane Grigson. The eel is cooked in a sauce made of cider, stock and cream. Sedgemoor is in Somerset in the south-east of England where most English recipes for eel come from.

eel stew

Ingredients

1 ½ to 2 kg (3 to 4 lb) freshwater eel

dry cider

150ml (¼ pint) double cream

4 tbs chopped parsley

salt and pepper

triangles of fried or toasted bread

Begin by cutting the eel(s) into even-sized portions of around two inches in length. Season them lightly. Make a stock from the eel heads and skin as well as the flat part of the tails: Place the trimmings in a pan and cover them with half-water, half-cider. Bring to a boil and then cover and simmer for 20 minutes.

Arrange the eel pieces in a shallow pan and pour over enough hot stock to just barely cover them. Gently poach the eels for 10-15 minutes depending on the girth of your eels until the eel meat starts to come away from the bones. Don’t let the stock come to a proper boil though – steady poaching is the key. When cooked, remove the eel pieces and arrange them on a serving dish, cover them and keep them warm.

Now make the sauce by boiling down the cooking liquor to a good strong flavour and then add the cream and parsley. Season again if required. Pour the sauce over the eel and serve with the fried bread or toast.

P.S. Delicious as eel maybe, beware if someone offers you raw eel, say as sashimi. Eel blood is toxic before it is cooked, so if you get served a bloody bit, it could be a bad man trying to do away with you.

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Elvers in the Gloucester Style

As promised on the last post on eel conservation, a recipe for a dish that on no accounts must you make unless the elver (glass eel) population has reached at least somewhere close to their population size in days of yore.

elver fisherman

An elverer on the River Severn

This is a recipe that I think I remember Keith Floyd cooking elvers still wriggling as he scooped them straight out of the River Severn in a pillowcase and  tipping them straight into a hot frying pan. I’ve tried to find the clip on the web, but alas it is nowhere to be found. I did find, however a clip of Gordon Ramsay cooking freshly-caught elvers on the banks of the river. I should warn you that elvers are cooked live, so if you are at all squeamish you might not want to see the video:

www.youtube.com/watch?v=07_IkrNy4cU

Elvers in the Gloucester style is essentially scrambled eggs with elvers and it comes from Jane Grigson’s English Food and it is one recipe that I will probably never cook for my other blog Neil Cooks Grigson where I’m trying to cook every single recipe from the book. She points that back in the years of elver plenty, ‘several tons of elvers are caught between Sharpness and Tewkesbury on the Severn’. Also, interestingly, ‘elvers are the only fish fry which may be legally caught as food.’

Well that probably won’t be true for very long.

Jane Grigson

Jane Grigson

Jane’s recipe asks for 500g of elvers so if you are a little evil and know where to get them prepare to pay – they’ll cost you at least £100!

It must have been very exciting going down the banks of the river at night to see a huge dark swathe of elvers migrating upstream safe in the knowledge that there’ll be a delicious dinner in store.

‘For 4

500g (1 lb) elvers

8 rashers fat streaky bacon

A little bacon fat or lard

2 eggs, beaten

Salt, pepper

Wine vinegar

‘When you go to buy elvers, take along an old pillowcase so that the fishmonger can tip them straight into it.

‘At home, add a handful of kitchen salt to the elvers and swish them about, still in the pillowcase, in plenty of water. Squeeze them firmly to extract as much water as possible, then repeat the washing process again with some more salt. This gets rid of the sliminess. You may need to rinse them again and pick out any tiny twigs, leaves and pieces of grass.

‘To cook the dish, fry the bacon until crisp in a little bacon fat or lard. Remove it to a serving dish, and turn the levers into the bacon fat which remains in the pan. Stir them about for a few seconds until they become opaque, then mix in the beaten egg and cook for a few seconds longer. The important thing is not to cook for too long. Taste and add seasoning. Put the elvers on top of the bacon, and sprinkle with a little vinegar. Serve very hot.’

We we’ll just have to take her word for it, I suppose.

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The Eel Paradox

Around a year ago I wrote a post about jellied eels and eel, pie and mash houses in London and I have been meaning to write a sequel on the subject of eel fishing and conservation for a while, as well as looking at some traditional recipes for the slippery fish.

The European eel Anguilla anguilla is a threatened species; the IUCN has put it on its Red List as a Critically Endangered animal, yet it is perfectly legal to eat them – and fish for them if you have a licence – the funny thing is adult stocks of eel has remained stable for the last few decades. So why has the eel been given this Critically Endangered status? Well it is because the young eels – known as elvers in Britain, but more commonly known as glass eels – have had the drastic drop in population. Some of these populations have crashed by 95% in some areas. The paradox is: how can the adult population be stable whilst the young have diminished in number so much?

german eel

Well the short answer is that we don’t know! Elvers resupply our rivers of stock eels after a long migration from the Sargasso Sea where they were born. Understandably, this part of the life cycle is poorly understood, and all scientists and conservationists can do is count the number reaching our estuaries and rivers and monitor them carefully.

In Britain, the main inlet for elvers is the River Severn; indeed there are still a decent number of elvers swimming into its mouth every year. However, the population has dropped overall in Europe by 75% and so the spectacle of the great migration is no longer what it was:

In the month of April; the shores of the Severn are annually darkened with innumerable quantities of elvers, which are seen fringing the sides of the river a black ascending line, which appears in constant motion…When the elvers appear in the river they are taken in great quantities with sieves of hair cloth, or even with a common basket, and after being scoured and are offered for sale. They are either fried in cakes, or stewed, and are accounted very delicious.

Illustrations of the Natural History of Worcestershire, Dr Hastings c.1830

Elvers were an essential food source in more ways than one according to Andrew Kerr of the Sustainable Eel Group: ‘entire communities would live on them; indeed … they were even used to fertilise the fields.’

elvers in the Severn

A smaller-scale version of what Dr Hastings saw on the River Severn

See the story and video here: http://news.bbc.co.uk/local/gloucestershire/hi/people_and_places/nature/newsid_8864000/8864173.stm

The UK ‘elvering’ season is from February to May with its peak in April and it is legal to fish for them if you have the appropriate license; and it can be big business when they sell for £200 a kilo. They go for these huge prices because they are snapped up by the Chinese in order to restock their fisheries.

Elver fishermen have an obligation to fulfill if they want to go fishing for glass eels – 35% of their catch must be relocated upstream. Tiny elvers entering estuaries are often impeded from reaching rivers because of flood barriers. By physically moving them upstream they can do as nature intended and live their lives in British freshwater before slipping back to the Sargasso to breed. This seems to be working – numbers of elvers in the River Severn are on the up, though this could just be population fluctuation.

elver net

The Environment find a poacher’s oversized elver fishing net (from The Guardian 2010)

The ethical elverer after relocating a third of his catch, then sells the remainder to eel farms. The nearest ones to Britain are in Ireland and Holland. This is what the people at the Sustainable Eel Group say is the sustainable thing to do. Unethical elverers sell their catch on to people that have a penchant for elvers. He also uses huge oversized nets and trawlers – some nets can be up to 18m; compare this to the legal 2.5m net. (Amazingly trawling for elvers is still legal in Britain, though the number of eel fishing licenses are restricted.)

Have a look at this BBC report about elver poaching:

http://news.bbc.co.uk/local/gloucestershire/hi/people_and_places/nature/newsid_8708000/8708514.stm

So what do we conclude here? Well jellied eels are not to be consigned to the history books – with careful monitoring there should be well-stocked eel fisheries. It’s simple: only buy farmed eels, not wild, and on no account never buy elvers.

The following two posts will be some eel recipes (some you should try and some you should not!)

 elvers

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