Slippery characters

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The Independent Culture
Several Saturdays ago, in The Independent, I read an intriguing piece about eels and elvers, their young. The article had but one defect: though it told you that eel had the highest food value of any British fish, 1,635 calories per pound, and that elvers were highly prized, and shipped across the world to the Japanese, it didn't tell you quite what wonderful dishes eels and elvers make, nor, like oysters, what a substantial part of our diet they once were. There was no mention of angullas al ajo, that delectable Spanish concoction of elvers in a shallow terracotta dish, baked in powerful Spanish olive oil with garlic and pepper; or of Berliner Aal grun, served with boiled, unpeeled new potatoes and sharp, creamy cucumber salad; or the Anguille fumee of Belgium, sprinkled with salt and hot-smoked, and eaten with horseradish and mustard sauce; or of that great classic, Anguille a la tartare, with its puree of sorrel; there was not a word about the extraordinarily flavoursome, street-cooked eels, grilled, fried, stewed, that you can still find in Italy. (There was also, thank the Lord, no reference to Gunther Grass's all-too-evocative description of how as a youth he watched eel fishers hang a horse's head from the docks to attract river eels, where the Vistula disgorges into the North Sea.)

What is distinctive about the common eel - the one we eat most, though we also cope gastronomically with the Moray eel and the conger - is its extraordinary richness and succulence and, the downside for some, its high fat content, its oiliness. For sheer slither in the mouth, nothing is comparable except caviar, and perhaps sturgeon, neither of which could be called common dishes. With eel you get two gastronomical experiences simultaneously: a unique texture and a very special flavour which, depending on your eel, its age and whence it was fetched, can be sweet and delicate or decidedly brackish.

As with much of traditional, humble cuisine, eel seems to have all but disappeared from our tables. Smoked eel is on some restaurant menus as a starter, and quite splendid it can be - superior to smoked salmon (overrated to my mind, except, of course, for the finest quality). And for that reason eel is not all that easy to obtain - which by no means suggests that you should not try it.

Preparing an eel, which may vary in length from 15 to 30 inches, is no great sweat. If you have a live one, as with a snake you whack its head on a stone to (as my very refined La Cuisiniere de la Campagne, 1810, puts it) "make it die". You then tie a string tightly about its head, make an incision round the neck, and simply pull off its skin. After gutting it you may then cut it into various lengths, according to your needs. A good common eel has a nice, silvery belly, and it is treated basically like any white fish, being set off, for the aesthetes among you, by the green of its accompanying vegetables or sauce.

Elvers (in common with snails and frogs' legs) have no real flavour of their own. When cooked in oil and garlic they make a great dish - filling, rich and tasty - but its attractions lie in its medium, and the pleasure I derive from it comes from the quicksilvery quantity of tiny, slippery elvers I can get on to a fork. It is a pleasure of texture not of taste, though there is a vestigial fishy flavour imparted to the burning oil that is quite special. But mature eels are something quite different.

One of the simplest of all ways of preparing eel is to grill them the way they do in France, down at the mouth of the Rhone or the Herault. This makes a wonderful summer dish for the home barbecue. The eel is cut into thick slices, coated in olive oil, packed about with fresh thyme, and allowed to marinate with a little lemon (briefly, say a half-hour, or else the marinade overwhelms the delicate flavour of the eel). It is then tossed on to a very hot charcoal grill with a sprinkling of fresh pepper (pink pepper, if you have it) and cooked for 15 to 20 minutes. This method reduced the oiliness of the fish without wasting its tastiness.

Should you wish to fry it indoors, cut your eel into three-inch lengths and put it into a casserole with half a bottle of white wine, a whole onion sliced very fine, a carrot or two, fresh thyme, a bay leaf and (frankly) any other green herbs you like. Add a little water and cook gently for about half-an-hour. Remove, and strain the liquid. Make a white roux with some fresh grated nutmeg and blend in the strained juices.

When your sauce has thickened, add three egg yolks and your unctuous eel and thicken further, then allow the whole to cool. Dredge your eel in breadcrumbs (lightest and best are crumbled rusks) and fry it briefly. Serve the eel on a bed of pureed sorrel or a clean, sharp tomato sauce.

Finally, risotto con l'anguilla from that ultimate watery place, Venice. Assuming you know the basic technique for a risotto (soffritto - onions wilted in oil, then the arborio rice sweated with it, the stock only then added, a little at a time), prepare your stock by first boiling then simmering your eel in 2 quarts of water with bay, onion and celery for some 20 minutes. Remove eel and strain, then cut the eel into small slices. Add your cooked eel to the risotto when the rice is about half done, ie about ten minutes after you've added all the stock to the soffritto. If you can find it - and it's not necessary, it simply makes the dish more beautiful and glossy - add enough squid ink to darken the risotto, and serve at once and very hot