Anguilla anguilla. Eels are mythic creatures, spending their youth in the sea but their adult life in fresh water.
As tiny fry (elvers) they take the grand tour of their life, spending three years swimming from the Saragossa Sea off the American coast thousands of miles across the Atlantic, bound for the streams and rivers of Europe and North Africa.
They then live their very long adult life in fresh water, before going on the long pilgrimage back to the warm sea of their youth to spawn and die.
These days, wild eel is a threatened creature. This is partly due to overfishing – including in rather mean ways, using flares to illuminate the water at night, when the eels are most active. However, the most serious threat is the damage to the eels’ habitat caused by pollution and intensive drainage.
Nowadays, eel farming is big business, and the farmed eels are actually good to eat.
In Scandinavia, eating eel is a male initiation rite, a contest, the proof of manhood being the number of times the bones can reach around the plate, and there is schnapps to go with most of the pieces of eel.
Appearing and taste
Eels have small heads and very tough, black skin. They wiggle like a snake and they even taste very much like snake. They are more popular dead than alive – as living creatures, most women find eels nasty, slimy beasts. Wild eels can reach 1.5 meters in length, although specimens this big are rarely seen. Most eels for frying are 30-40cm long. Those for smoking need more fat, which comes with age.
Buying and storing
Smoked eel must be shiny, firm and with absolutely no wrinkles. Eel will not keep more than a day, so cook it on the day it is bought; once cooked, eel will keep for several days in the fridge.
Eel flesh is rich and robust enough to cope with strong flavorings, including serious spices, vinegar, lemon, beer, horseradish and/or garlic.
Eel has a great, rough taste and the flesh is fine, very firm and very, very fatty. When it is smoked the fattiness is a virtue, but if you are boiling or frying it, eel needs special care to get rid of some of the fat, and be as wonderful as it really can be. Grilling is the perfect way to cook fresh eel with the skin on; the fat has time to drip away, leaving succulent meat.
If you are pan-frying it, the eel should be skinned. Fry it once until the fat and juices run, then transfer it to a colander and wash it in cold water. Dry the eel, dip it in seasoned flour, then fry again in browned butter.
The traditional trimmings are creamed potatoes, though honestly this combination is not very easy to survive as the fat content is alarmingly high. It’s tasty but devastating. You have to stay in bed for a day to digest, like a snake that has swallowed a whole goat.
There are other delicious ways to eat eel without the health alert: I suggest new potatoes and a vinegary cucumber salad with dill. Or, as the recipe below, braised in dark beer. Leftovers are beautiful if soused.
Eel braised in beer
The interesting flavor if this dish comes from the dark beer, lots of herbs and a touch of vinegar, contrasting with the delicious fatty fish. The strange thing about cooking with beer is that the bitterness from the hops diminishes during cooking, leaving an arousing, pleasant complexity. Eat simply with new potatoes.
800g eel, cut into large chunks
2 tablespoons salted butter
4 tablespoons cider vinegar
A sprig each of fresh tarragon and sage
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
250ml dark, strong beer
200ml sweet cider
Coarse sea salt
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
150ml whipping cream
500g chopped mixed fresh herbs: parsley, dill, chives, chervil and sorrel
Fry the eel in butter in a deep, thick-based pan, browning it lightly all over. Add the vinegar and fry it until the liquid has evaporated. Add the sage and tarragon sprigs, bay leaf, rhyme leaves, beer, cider, salt and pepper. Leave to braise slowly for 15 minutes until tender. Remove the eel from the pan. Pour in the cream and reduce to a thick sauce over a high heat. Add the chopped fresh herbs, and salt and pepper to taste. Return the eel to the pan and then serve.
Feature image (on top) Smoked eel
Written by Tor Kjolberg