As a youngster Simon Ford launched a campaign called ‘Operation Save the Eel’ to stop his Grandad from eating eels. Today he delights in the ‘wonders of jellied eels’, but are they sustainable?
In the cold spring waters of the Channel, countless tiny creatures, like shards of glass, are making slowly for our coast. They are elvers in search of a taste of the fresh water from the rivers that run into the sea. They have drifted thousands of miles from where they were spawned in the Sargasso Sea but there is no doubt that annually many million fewer are making the journey.
In the warm glow of a fashionable restaurant I am looking at the menu and wondering if ordering just one smoked eel starter can make any conceivable difference to whether the eel can evade extinction.
The dilemma over eating eels seems to me to be one where your conscience writhes too and fro struggling to get a handle on the right thing to do. Especially if you wish to see the survival of one of our most fascinating species and believe in preserving our rich eating traditions. Should the jellied eel stall or the small-scale artisan smokery be preserved? Is there a place for the elver fishers or the ghillies who make a few extra pounds selling on silver eels they remove from brown trout streams in their care? Or should we have a self-denying ordinance and refuse eel, hold back to do our own small bit to prevent an animal being driven to oblivion?
The eel is a fascinating yet elusive subject. It spends years lying in the mud of fresh water lakes and rivers growing fat only one day for some biological signal – we don’t know what – to force a metamorphosis that changes its colour from brown and yellowy green to silver and which makes it head for the sea. But it is not just our eels that do this; all wild eels from across the world are compelled to head for an area near the Caribbean – the Sargasso Sea. This sea itself is a peculiar enough place, it has strong counter cyclical currents, which trap seaweed and debris in a never-ending vortex – it once trapped sailing ships. The eels arrive, spawn and die. The larvae hatch but cannot swim and rely on the centripetal currents to throw them out into the ocean where they may drift for three years before turning into transparent spaghetti-like elvers as they approach the different continental landmasses. They find their fresh water, turn into eels and bed down for a decade of bottom dwelling before they feel the urge to head to sea. They have been doing this for millennia but we only began to work out this life cycle in the early twentieth century.
I adore eels, smoked or jellied, but there was a time when I decided to put a stop to eel consumption in the family home, I instituted a Grandad denying ordinance. For my Grandad Lol, Saturday meant obeying a strict and unbending timetable. He would spend the morning at his fruit and veg market stall and then come home to watch the horse racing on the ITV Seven. Saturday evening tea was shellfish – a pint of prawns or a crab, always a pint of boiled winkles and his own home made stewed eels; the only dish he would ever cook.
Occasionally aged nine or ten I was entrusted to go the local fishmongers to pick up all the fish in return for extra pocket money. I loved everything but one element in this weekly ritual. I can still smell the spiced malt vinegar that we dropped the winkles into as we extracted them with a pin stuck in a cork. I can still feel the fingernail like doors to each winkles shell that attached themselves to your hands and clothes as you pulled them away from the creature’s tiny foot – for some reason we called them eyes.
I loved how, with enough hands helping, the small sweet spirals of sea snail would gradually fill the collective pint pot (especially as we only snuck the occasional one, as Grandad kept a fierce eye even as he went to the kitchen to prepare more of the feast). At the end the spoils were shared equally amongst everyone who gathered round the TV. But I didn’t like the fact that Lol would insist that his main course had to be bought live. I would watch frozen from the lounge as he placed his hand in the bucket to grab one, then he would hold it down on the table and chop off its head. With almost the same knife stroke he would cut down its belly to gut it and chuck it still squirming and apparently alive into boiling stock. After a few minutes the stewed eels were ladled over mashed potatoes and served with parsley sauce.
Steadily more appalled by the Saturday slaughter, I hatched a plan – Operation Save the Eel. I began saving my pocket money, the idea was that one Saturday morning I would buy up all the fishmonger’s stock of live eels and set them free in the River Thames. With the help of my best friends we made our purchase and carried twenty eels from Brentford High St to the Thames at Eel Pie Island. (Our logic was if it was so called that it must be a place they would enjoy living near). There were only a few disbelieving anglers for witnesses. I arrived home triumphant, told my dad, and we waited for Grandad to come home. Confronted by my rebellion his only words to my dad were “Tony, that boy of yours is soppy.” He never forgave me.
Now agonising over the fate of eels seems like an even odder thing to do. It is a job persuading most people that a creature that emerges from the mud of rivers, lakes and ditches, both slimy and snake like, is in anyway appetising.
My eel induced emotional spasm didn’t last long. After Lol died I made a fetish of introducing people to the wonders of jellied eels – a textural and taste delight. I love the combination of dense meaty flesh, rich jelly and vinegar and the fact that you need to work at teasing the morsels of flesh off the sharp little bones. Jellied eels are what you get if you let my Grandad’s stew go cold. The French also love eel stews. In a “matelote”, as the starring ingredient it is robust enough to take on the red wine, vinegar, bacon and garlic shallots more often found with red meats. In the Far East eels are found enriching countless stews paired with ginger and chili. They make wonderful satay. In Japan (and increasingly here) hundreds of thousands of lunch boxes feature “Inagi”, small boneless pieces roasted or grilled and then sweet glazed and served on rice with pickles. More accessible still is fillet of smoked eel – stripped of its skin with bones removed its rich flesh is beautifully complimented by a dab of fresh creamed horseradish. All these dishes have in common some element to cut through the richness.
Eel is probably the richest fish and this quality comes from its fatness. An eel can spend more than a decade gorging itself on the fish, frogs and insects it preys on. It is building up huge reserves of energy that will carry it the four thousand miles down river and through oceans, even across dry land, back to the Sargasso Sea to breed. It is unique, though it does share some elements of its looks lifestyle and habitat with the unrelated lamprey – a lamprey does it the other way round, migrating from sea to fresh water to breed. If you eat too many eels you can see how King Henry I managed to die of a surfeit of lampreys (some even believe they were eels). The Royals didn’t learn their lesson in overindulgence. In 1257 Henry III ordered 15,0000 eels for one banquet alone, though this time he and the guests survived.
You might struggle to die of a surfeit of eels these days. Last year the Environment Agency put a ban on fishing juvenile eels from May 10 until February 14 this year. The days when the Thames was clogged with a great moving mass of jelly as the elvers passed upstream, or when huge catches could be landed if you dipped your nets in the right spots along the banks of the Severn and Somerset levels, are gone. Elvers have become a valuable commodity. Few could now afford to eat them in the traditional way, when thousands were fried in bacon fat. They are now valuable enough to be air freighted to the commercial eel raising ponds in Holland, China and Japan. But the prices are rising because even the elver catchers are landing less each year in the traditional spots. Some people believe that we may have come so far that we face a catastrophic species collapse, whereby there are not enough eels remaining to sustain their population.
Despite this there is one place here in the West Country which still has the reputation of making the very best smoked eels in the country. Brown and Forrest have been preparing eels for 25 years, the firm is now run by Jesse Pattison. I went to see Jesse there in the Somerset Levels to see how he dealt with the dilemma.
I arrived to find a thriving business, a smokery, a restaurant, a shop and mail order. Not what you would expect if eels are facing extinction. Jesse doesn’t think all is lost, far from it, but it was clear that he needed to keep his options open and was diversifying. He is the epitome of a modern artisanal food retailer – passionate about the best ingredients and fed up with the industrialisation of food production. He has gone from a job mastering the art of the cold call as an agricultural sales rep, “I had to brace myself to head down seven unfamiliar farm tracks every day”, to becoming the master of hot smoking.
Michael Brown the original master and founder still helps out in the most busy period before Christmas; but Jesse is focusing more and more on the restaurant and shop business to get around the cash flow problem generated when 80% of the business happened in just two months.
Eels are still the flagship product, but every conceivable smoked meat or fish has joined them. His smoked salmon has just been taken on as the house salmon for Fortnum and Mason, he is justly proud that it could never be confused with the “phlegm like gloop served at every work hooly.” He cold smokes salmon lying horizontally over smouldering oak or beech sawdust and believes this is what gives it a more penetrating and intense flavour.
The eels are smoked in a different way. They are humanely dispatched, gutted, brined and then placed in the hot smoker over an open oak fire. After a twenty-minute roast the fire is damped down and they are left to cold smoke. The alchemy of the smoke turns them into a beautiful copper brown and the flesh within delicately smoky and firm. The taste is so delicate and poised that any other flavouring would spoil them. Seeing and tasting the process is a reminder that this is easily one of the top ten tastes amongst British foods.
It is a highly skilled job, the fatness of the eel means that an entire kiln could burst into flames if the heat is too intense and is in fact why Jesse only smokes the mature silver eels that are ready to begin their migration back to sea. As they metamorphose from bottom dwellers to swimming machines they lose some of their fat. The silver eels can be harder to come across, the eel fishing ban didn’t apply to the brown eels used to make jellied eels. I asked had he tried using them – he said they were so much fatter that he would be making eel candles rather than a delicacy if he did.
I asked could he ever imagine a day when eel wasn’t on the menu?
He couldn’t, provided we avoided the blanket bans that follow in the wake of food panics. But he accepted that the practice in Europe of fishing every elver of eel they could, didn’t help. Even in the year of the ban the French were alleged to have netted the Seine and removed 100 tonnes of eel, 25 tonnes of which went to the Far East.
But he let me in on an intriguing fact that while eel and elver numbers were dramatically down in the traditional rivers, others like some of those in Dorset, were swarming once again. “The Environment Agency has only been monitoring numbers for five years and if you take a snap shot of nature at any one point you can come up with bad news.” The last three years have seen much higher numbers as well as new sites.
Could it be that the life cycle of the eel is so delicately poised, that even tiny alterations in ocean currents caused by global warming, were changing the rivers that the eels could access from the Channel? It would be good news if they are finding new entry points to our waterways, entry points which are not so extensively fished. Of course there is a negative side to this, for if that is the case, it may be that elvers previously destined for our country are missing us and being swept past us and back into the ocean to be eaten before they can find new land. Like so much surrounding the eel, we just don’t know.
I left the Levels convinced that there is some wriggle room in the great eel debate. For the moment I treasure the existence of a real artisan process that make’s a natural treat – the eight and a half tonnes of grown eels sourced from British rivers, that Jesse supplies annually, does not endanger the eel. His output is insignificant when compared with the ten tonnes a week produced by each of the three largest Dutch eel smokers. Let alone the damage done to stock levels when millions of elvers are exported to the Far East. I wouldn’t hesitate if I saw Brown and Forrest eels on a menu. As long as the business thrives there will be an advocate for the eel and a sustainable source for a great treat. I may not be able to persuade you to love jellied eels but providing you get yours from Jesse’s place do give smoked ones a try.
Brown and Forrest, Bowdens Farm, Hambridge, Somerset TA10 OBP.
01458 250 875 www.brownandforrest.co.uk.