So. The smoked eel I returned from Belgium with. First of all, I’m really, really sorry. Sorry because I contributed to what I now believe to be the unsustainable fishery of an endangered species, and sorry also because this post is going to be that most annoying of all injunctions – the ‘do as I say, not as I do’. Because, yes, obviously, I did purchase and consume a half kilo of smoked eel, and I’m not going to lie to you, it was good. It was, in fact, very tasty indeed, but still, I implore you not to follow my example. Please, please DO NOT purchase and consume eel. Do as I say, not as I did.
The simple fact is that, according to best estimates the population (if that’s the word) of the European Eel (Anguilla anguilla) – because, for all my digression on to the subject of the conger eel in my last post, that is, I’m pretty sure the eel in question – has crashed catastrophically over the past thirty years or so. The numbers of eels reaching European waters from their spawning grounds in the Sargasso Sea having reduced, since the 1970s by at least 90%. I’ll say that again, AT LEAST 90%. Maybe as much as 98%. The species is, therefore, unsurprisingly, listed by the IUCN as critically endangered. That’s as a species, not just as a menu item.
Eels – stewed or jellied, of course, used to be the staple fast food of the part of London I live in. That is no longer the case, and the fact that there are just a handful of traditional live eel handling pie and mash shops left in the East End, and that almost nobody regularly consumes jellied eels any more, unless they dress like this, might lead you to assume that pressure had been taken off eel stocks in the past couple of generations. Taken together with the fact that the Thames is, apparently, cleaner today than at any time since the industrial revolution, then one might assume that London’s river would be teeming with the slithy toves. But it’s not. It is, almost entirely, devoid of eel. In as few as five years, the numbers caught by the Zoological Society of London’s monitoring traps fell from 1500, in 2005, to just 50, in 2009. And that has nothing to do with jellied eel consumption (almost all of the eels for which have been imported, mainly from Ireland, for many years).
No, the decline of the eel population, and the decline of the cockney culinary tradition appear to have been coincidental, in both senses of the word – happening at the same time, but unlinked by cause and effect. So where have all the eels gone? And if Chas’n’Dave are not to blame, who is?
While fashion and, I suspect, modern squeamishness, have led to the crisis in jellied eel consumption and subsequent demise of traditional pie and mash shops in London’s East End, eel appears to remain a popular, and rather more upmarket, item on Belgian and Dutch menus. Even this, though, is small fry compared to the Global sushi market’s demand for Unagi. But, it would seem that not even the world’s appetite for Nigiri can be held wholly responsible for the precipitous collapse of European eel stocks. Quite what is responsible has yet to be definitively identified, and no doubt overfishing to feed a growing global sushi market plays its part, but that’s not the whole picture, and to even begin to grasp that we need to take a closer look at the eel’s biology, and in particular the mysteries of its life cycle.
The European eel is arguably misnamed, because it doesn’t start its life in Europe at all. Rather, all Anguilla Anguilla are hatched in the Sargasso Sea, near the Bermudas, from where they are carried, as microscopic larvae, on the currents of the Gulf Drift, on a journey North and East of several months, to the coastal waters of Europe. On reaching the colder European waters the larvae metamorphose into the tiny, transparent ‘glass eels’ that then seek out fresh water, making their way into the river systems of Western Europe where they will, slowly, mature. Finally, at the age of fifteen or twenty years old, they will return to the seas and embark on their long final migration back to the Sargasso where they will spawn, once, and then die.
The complexity of this life story, then, makes the eel dependent on (and thus vulnerable to) a plethora of factors, related and unrelated, ranging in scope from the global to the very local. This makes pinning the blame for the species’ decline onto any single factor both impossible and pointless. That it’s some combination of overfishing, climate change (pretty much every model of global warming charts a severe weakening, or complete cessation of the Gulf Drift – in which case the absence of eels from our tables may well be the least of our worries), habitat destruction and pollution (particularly the accumulation of plastic detritus in the Sargasso Sea), would appear to go without saying. And those last three items kind of make it all of our fault. Whether we eat eel or not. Or, maybe it’s just that the eel itself and its, frankly, implausible lifecycle is just an evolutionary dead end that was always doomed to extinction, sooner or later – which just happens to turn out to be right about now.
Oh, and the fact that the majority of eel we might eat, be it jellied, smoked, stewed or sushi, is farmed doesn’t much help either, in case you were wondering. Not only is there the question of the environmental impact of this form of acquaculture to be considered, but there is, even more compellingly, the inescapable fact that all farm raised eel start off life as wild creatures who are caught – still in vast numbers – in their juvenile glass eel form, and thus removed from the potential breeding pool, never to be returned to it. A particular problem for a species which takes so long to reach sexual maturity and then only gets one shot at procreation
Ultimately, it seems clear to me that the fact of the eel’s decline being not necessarily solely, or even principally, the result of over exploitation is neither here nor there when it comes to choosing whether or not to eat it. The simple fact is that this is a species potentially on the verge of extinction, for whatever reasons, and we really can’t justify its consumption. So does that make me a hypocrite, or just a smug bastard, to be telling you about the eel I consumed? Or can I lay any claim to honesty?
What I will say is that, when it comes to eel in its smoked form, anything you might chose to do with it is entirely and eminently do-able with smoked mackerel - that longstanding favourite of this blog - the two being very much in the same area in terms of flavour, texture, aroma and colour – all the key features of a foodstuff. I will not lie to you, though. While similar, our eel was both sweeter and more intensely flavoured, and somehow managed that intensity without being so all pervadingly, and lingeringly, fishy smelling as mackerel can be. Still, is that really worth your conscience? Not mine, I think. Nor, in future, can Unagi be, much as it has always been one of my first choices from the sushi conveyer…
So here’s what I did with my smoked eel. Just imagine I’m using mackerel, which shouldn’t be hard as it’s basically just a version of the mackerel and potato salad I’ve written up here before, but specially modified to incorporate the Belgian leeks we came home with, as well as the eel.
I put on a pan of new potatoes (anyas in this instance) and while they were boiling I chopped one of the leeks in half lengthways, then sliced each half reasonably, but not too, fine. Then I chopped three or four stems of the fine celery and sautéed both up with just a little finely sliced garlic and red chilli in a generous amount of olive oil. Once the potatoes were cooked I drained them and stirred them though the pan of leek and celery (off the heat), adding the zest and juice of half a lemon and a good grind of black pepper, then flaked in the smoked fish and a sprinkling of capers and halved and pitted black olives. Then I left it all to cool. It’s entirely up to you how much you want to let it cool - all the way and serve at room temperature; or serve it as a warm salad. Either’s good, but I’d tend to favour warm. Whatever temperature you want to serve it at, mix in the salad leaves at the last minute so they’re crisp and fresh and don’t go soggy – check the seasoning and add a few spoonfuls of a good mustardy vinaigrette if you feel it needs it. This was a distinctive and utterly delicious variation on the smoked fish and potato salad. And of course it would work just as well - maybe not quite as sweet but considerably more conscionably - with mackerel.
Help me to salve my conscience and make amends for the whole eel eating farrago by joining me in signing up to Hugh’s Fish Fight right here, to champion sustainable fishing practices, reform the European Common Fisheries Policy, and put an end to the absurd practice of enforced discarding of perfectly good (and thoroughly dead) fish.
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And don’t spare the horses…
Now I know that some (many?) of you will think I should also be apologising for coming home from Belgium with horse meat. Well, sorry, but no, I’m not. Sorry that is.
Maybe for buying it from a supermarket (a Carrefour Express in Knocke), vac packed and bearing the label “Cock’s Fresh” (Ha! Sorry, I couldn’t resist), but not for it being the flesh of a horse. Personally I’ve never really understood the sentimental squeamishness we traditionally have in this country to the idea of horse meat, let alone the hypocrisy in how differently we regard horses and cows, pigs and sheep. I wouldn’t eat dog, but that’s because a dog is a scavenging carnivore, not because I regard it as man’s best friend.
Whatever. This ‘filet de cheval ex doux’ was lightly cured so that it had the texture of fresh, raw meat, sliced very fine, with a deliciously sweet, delicately smoky flavour. It would have been quite serveable as carpaccio, and made thoroughly excellent sandwiches with tomato, rocket and some pickled cucumber. Nice horse.