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Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

13 August 2009

And now, eels.

I promised--or made a vague threat--to talk about eels and it seemed a natural thing to do after Shakespeare and lavender.

Say Wide Sargasso Sea to me and it makes me think of eels, not Jane Eyre or the first Mrs. Rochester. That's where both European and American eels spawn in the beginning of an extremely odd life cycle of metamorposes. Eggs hatch into leaf-shaped larvae, drift to the coast, and become elvers or glass eels, and take to a fresh water habitat, swimming upstream and even traveling overland before settling into a river, growing and becoming yellow eels. They can live there for several decades before returning to the Sargasso Sea as silver eels where they embrace a salt water environment again, reproduce and die.

Like so many European species, eel populations are in decline. So the harvesting of elvers, in a season that lasts only a few days (the larvae will only enter waters at the right temperature), is now rigorously controlled. Once a local delicacy, most of them are exported to the Asian market.

The Severn, England's longest river, is one of the major elver rivers. Read about chef Gordon Ramsay's elvering adventure here--even though he'd been granted a license he still came in for criticism from environmentalists (and no, they're not eating spaghetti).

As for mature eels, they're mostly eaten now in a jellied form (the eel is naturally gelatinous, or slimy). There are still establishments in London where you can sample the classic Victorian triad of eel, pie, and mash.

For an unbiased account of what jellied eels taste like, you can visit the Desperately Seeking Root Beer blog, written by an expatriate Californian. On the right, at another establishment, the jellied eels are in the foreground, and behind, the pie (a nonedescript beef), mashed potato and the green stuff is called liquor. I'm not sure what it is--it might be some relative of squishy peas, itself a relative of the pea.

There is one working eel fisherman left on the London Thames, now the cleanest river in the industrial world, and you can see yet another Gordon Ramsay segment here; not for the faint-hearted, there are several eel decapitations and many f-words. Gordon then cooks the eels into a "posh fish finger... not even a hint of slime."

Here's an authentic sixteenth century recipe for Fish and Fruit Pie and an account of cooking it here:
With that, Fish Pies: to instruct the person who will be doing this job--because not everyone is a master of it--he should get his fish, that is, good bellies of tuna, good big filets of carp, good big fresh eels--and of all that he should get the quantity that is needed for the number of pies that he is ordered to make; take all of it and cut it into good-sized pieces and set it to cook in a good clean cauldron appropriate in size for the amount you have; when it is cooked, take it out onto fine tables which are good and clean, and cull through all your fish to remove any scales or bones, then chop it up well. Get good candied figs, prunes and dates and slice these up small, to the size of small dice; get pinenuts and have them cleaned thoroughly and get candied raisins and clean them well so there are no seeds left; of all of this take an amount proper for the amount of the fish filling you are making, wash it well in white wine, then mix it in with your fish in a fine pan. Then get another pan which is good and clean in which you will clarify good fine oil; when it is clarified put enough of that oil into your filling for that amount of it, then set it on hot coals to heat up, and stir it continuously with a good spoon. Then get good spice powder and put in a reasonable amount of it, and a lot of sugar. Then order your pastry cook to make large or small pie shells for you, and they should be covered.
Have you ever eaten eels in any form? Or something else strange and authentic?

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12 Comments:

Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Well, blogger ate my comment, so I'll try again. I had said that I have major texture issues when it comes to food, and I'd truly have to suffer for my art to eat eels. I'll let my characters eat them and eschew, so to speak, any method acting that might compel me to try them.

So, Janet, your terrific post and that 16th c. recipe (which seems to be all about disguising the taste and texture of the eels with those candied raisins, figs, prunes, and dates, and pine nuts) is about as close as I intend to come to eels.

12:43 PM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Eating eels: don't want to, not going to. However your post is interesting to me as research!... Thanks, Janet

1:03 PM  
Anonymous Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

I have never eaten eels and don't want to, although I do love to eat snails, particularly in garlic butter. In my house, growing up, my mother used to cook tripe and chitlins, and pigs feet and I never ate any of it. Oh, and she used to make West Indian souse (sp?) which involves pigs ears.

2:15 PM  
Blogger Janet Mullany said...

Elizabeth, I was raised on offal (lots of liver and hearts) some of which I liked but make me shudder now when I think about it. The pie recipe, Amanda, sounded great without the fish and a lot of recipes well into the 18c defined "sweet" dishes as those with meat in them but additions like dried fruit.

5:06 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

No eel pie, but I eat eel with pleasure on sushi... a food that as they say in the high-tech SF Bay Area, has a "learning curve." So far, mine hasn't climbed to what's known as "challenging," sea urchin. But you never know. Isn't there some classic poem about eel fishermen -- elvers?

5:48 PM  
Blogger Diane Gaston said...

Eels are something to which I've given very little thought, and certainly no thought at all to eating them!

7:45 PM  
Blogger Victoria Janssen said...

I have not eaten eels, but I admit I am very curious about them.

7:34 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

classic poem... duh, I meant The Leech Gatherer.

Oh well...

7:55 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Thanks for the great post, Janet! As Amanda says, it's helpful to have research info on eels, as I have no intention of eating them. I've actually been a vegetarian for twenty years, which makes it particularly unlikely that I'll ever try them. When I was in Scotland with my friend Penny, with we were at a conference where they served haggis. The vegetarian alternative was "vegetarian haggis" which has all the spices and oats mixed with tofu, I think. Penny tasted the vegetarian version and said it didn't taste that different from the regular one as mostly what one tasted (at least in these two dishes) was the spices.

10:00 AM  
Blogger Margaret Evans Porter said...

I've tried eel--not very enthusiastically. One time was when I was flying from Sydney to Auckland. It's surprising sometimes, the foods that are served in the First Class cabin on international routes! The eel was part of the cold starter, it was cold and sort of jellied. I do not consider the consistency of eel at all pleasant!

10:28 AM  
Blogger Janet Mullany said...

Pam, I've eaten raw sea urchin (had a boyfriend who was a diver, long story), not exactly in the form of sushi--scraped out of the innards with a knife. Tracy, I've eaten haggis and chips which I enjoyed, a long time ago, and my impression was that it was 90% oats. I've recently become a vegetarian, a bored and reluctant one, because I find meat unpalatable tho I eat fish (but not eels. Yuk).

6:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I feel I have to speak up for eel, which is considered a delicacy in Holland, where I live. We mostly eat smoked eel fillets, which are delicious, and expensive. They are usually served in pricey sandwiches or in small pieces as canapes with drinks. It is an oily fish, so very healthy according to modern nutritional principles.
But I have also eaten fresh eel in a green sauce once in a restaurant, which was very nice.
There are severe restrictions in place here on catching eels, as numbers are declining.

Ingrid

11:44 PM  

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