Slip sliding away: The rise and fall of eels

Eels were a staple part of Londoners' diets for more than a millennium. but now the number of shops serving them is in sharp decline – as are the creatures themselves...

A dark sky full of rain hangs over the backyard of F Cooke's Pie and Eel shop in Hoxton Market. Joe Cooke, a hearty, big man, is fumbling for eels in a deep plastic tank. Tipping the slithering prey into a bucket, he turns to sharpen a long, wicked knife on a rasping steel. In the bucket, six or seven eels turn over each other, desperately thrashing, trying to bury themselves. One makes it to the blood-stained chopping board and Cooke's fingers caress it. Something strange happens: the creature is soothed, almost hypnotised. It lays straight, seemingly oblivious to its fate.

Cooke takes off the head and expertly slits the belly, removing the guts in one long slice. Globs of dark flesh and innards fleck his thick fingers. "I've been doing this since I was a kid on my dad's stall," says the 58-year-old. "Beautiful creatures, ain't they?" As the sky opens, we retreat into his shop, one of the last remaining palaces devoted to eels, pie and mash – white-tiled walls, sawdust on the floor, wooden benches and all.

In a city dominated and bisected by the River Thames, the eel was a staple diet of London's poor because it was plentiful, cheap and, when most meat or fish had to be preserved in salt, it could be kept alive in puddles of water. Undoubtedly eaten by Roman occupiers, it was spatch-cocked by the Anglo-Saxons, who caught it by line or eel-bucks – wicker or willow baskets tapered at one end and thrown across the Thames in a line in great numbers. The bucks were such a nuisance to river traffic that they were banned under the terms of the Magna Carta – not that anyone took notice. By the 19th century, however, the Thames had become so polluted that it could no longer sustain significant eel populations – but Londoners' appetite for the creatures was sated by the arrival of Dutch imports.

To make what stock there was go further, the eels were mixed with other ingredients in pies. These were excellent street food: hot, filling, transportable and perfect for the emerging urban working class; it was said that some 600 pie-men plied their trade in London.

The city, however, was changing and ideas of respectability permeated much of Victorian London. Life on the streets for a section of the working classes gave way to rooted shops, cafés – even restaurants. The first recorded eel and mash shop was opened by Henry Blanchard at 101 Union Street in Southwark in 1844, and their numbers soon grew – as the Victorian curate Reverend David Badham reported in his "Prose Halieutics; Or Ancient and Modern Fish Tattle", published in 1854, "London steams and teems with eels alive and stewed. For one halfpenny, a man of the million may fill his stomach with six or seven long pieces and wash them down with a sip of the glutinous liquid they are stewed in." By 1874, there were 33 such shops in operation – and the eel remained extremely popular up until the middle of the 20th century. Now, however, there are fewer than 20 in London. And it's not just the shops that are in decline – it's the eels themselves, too.

Alison Debney from the Zoological Society of London is the project manager for the Thames eel monitoring project. She recounts in a rather nervous voice that since 1980 there has been a decline of more than 95 per cent in the stock levels of European eels. But why are the k numbers diminishing so rapidly? There are multiple causes, according to Debney: "One is the barrier to migration – so lack of habitat. We've drained a lot of our rivers, and we've built big flood defences, so eels aren't able to access [those that haven't been drained]. There are changes to ocean migratory currents; there's also an eel parasite that seems to affect their swim bladder, which they use to change their position in the water." Pollution, levels of salination in water and global warming may also play a part.

Fewer eels naturally means higher prices. And Graham Poole, who runs M Manze's Eel & Pie House in Peckham, has certainly felt the impact. Manze's hasn't butchered and cooked its own eels for a couple of decades, not since the shop was burnt out in 1985 during the local race riots – "It's too much farting about... we get them from Mick's Eels in [London fish market] Billingsgate," says Poole – so, to supplement its take at the register, the caff now also offers a mail-order eel business, which keeps the staff busy. "We get emails at all times of night, after people have had a few drinks. Old East Enders who have moved out, reminiscing – they want their eels and pies," explains Poole.

What's more, the shop – which has been at its current site for nearly 100 years – also now attracts a new type of customer: "There are quite a few trendier middle-class people coming in and trying the food. They tend to get up later in the day." He smiles, before adding: "We rarely sell a vegetarian pie before midday."

These young professionals may be sampling this cuisine somewhat ironically, but it also fits perfectly with the contemporary fine-dining idea of "nose-to-tail" eating, the wish to waste nothing from an animal, from tripe to trotters. But if you want eel in a hotly tipped restaurant these days, it tends to be Japanese. Nobody – so far – has been brave enough to redefine the jellied eel.

"The thing about eels is how they're presented," Paul Simpson tells me as he stands inside Tubby Isaacs' Jellied Eel Stall on the Whitechapel Road in east London. "People queue up for sushi, don't they? I think it's the jelly that puts them off – in the old days, people would boil their eels, eat them and what was left over would form the jelly. Before fridges you could keep them like that for a couple of days."

Simpson has been working here since the 1970s. "The stall first opened in 1919 – my dad, Ted, had the business before me and he got it from his Uncle Solly, who took over from Tubby." Not that this bloodline makes any difference when it comes to rising prices: "We're paying a fortune for them at the moment," he grouses. "You're looking at about £10 a kilo – and that's without the cost of guys killing them, cutting them up, the labour, the wages."

The small bowl in front of me is an inch deep with eel bits in a quivering transparent jelly – Simpson's speciality ("Eight for £4") – with a dash of chilli vinegar and a small piece of bread. The initial shock of the jelly – cold, wobbly – is replaced by the firm, meaty flesh of the eel. The bone is hard; sharp. It bisects the thick portion and immediately you want to suck. The flesh comes away easily. The eel is fishy but not overly so. I'm reminded of salmon – sticky, slightly oily. I roll the bone around my mouth and immediately want more...

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