Food: Eel pie island

Britain sadly ignores a great national dish
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I read somewhere, recently, that one of the oldest eel, pie and mash shops in London (was it in Bermondsey?) has closed its doors for the last time. There were wonderful pictures of the richly tiled interior, with its hard wooden benches polished by many bums. The shell of the original, the tiles and fenestration, will stay, as far as I understand, because of its historic value as a listed site, but the original operation will cease. Perhaps it will continue as yet another "new restaurant". Then again, it might well become a clothes shop. Sad.

Why do we no longer eat eels? Wherever one is near a river or lake in France, Italy and Spain, eels are eaten in season with voracity and much pleasure - and by all. But in Britain the phrase, "Why do we no longer eat eels?" is loaded with class-consciousness.

Along with oysters, whelks, tripe, pigs trotters, ox tails and other interior bits and extremities, eels are associated with victuals for the working classes. This is typical, I'm afraid, of this country's attitude towards food. Curiously, oysters, ox tails and pig's trotters in particular are now considered delicacies.

Everyone knows that in Victorian times, 100 oysters could be had for a penny - or some such piddling amount. We could easily suggest that the very fact of their costly price today, is one of the reasons for their allure. If cabbage was the price of caviar, and vice-versa, whose taste would we prefer?

But back to eels. The Japanese and, especially, the Chinese eat eels till they are coming out of their ears. In fact, there is probably a very good hot-pot-stew dish that they might do incorporating eels' and pigs' ears. They certainly do stews of oysters and eels, belly pork and oysters, eels and belly pork, so an ear or two could only add interest to these.

When elvers - the tiny, tiny infant eels, not much more than an inch long - swim up the river Severn on the back of the spring tides, it is the cause for much celebration around the area of Frampton-upon-Severn, where, I am led to believe, there is an annual elver-eating competition. Jane Grigson, who mentions this in her book, Fish Cookery, was told that a pound of them had been eaten by the village garage mechanic in one minute flat, which constituted a record. Now this might not sound very much, but, believe me, the elver (and, less so, the eel) is one of the world's richest foods. Sadly, they are not the regular annual treat for Gloucestershire people they used to be. A pound of elvers now fetches anything up to pounds 30 - and most of them are air-freighted to Japan before you can say yen.

But where else in Britain to find them? Well, in London, and Chinatown in the West End particularly: live eels are readily available seven days a week from the charming Chinese proprietors of Good Harvest fishmongers at 14 Newport Place, WC 2 (0171-437 0712), who will happily fish some out of their deep, Stygian tanks with a net and pop them into a plastic bag. They then hit the eels sharply to kill them before gutting, ready for you to take home, still wriggling. Then, of course, you have to skin them.

If you live near clean rivers or lakes, ask your fishmonger whether he knows of eel fishers in the vicinity. Manchester and Liverpool, and, to some extent, Edinburgh and Cardiff, have thriving Chinese communities, so look in Chinese supermarkets there.

Skinning an eel is not as difficult or as worrisome as you think. Make a circular cut through the skin just behind the head. Now, with a pair of pliers and holding onto the head with a damp tea-towel or dishcloth, pull away the skin sharply with some determination and fortitude; it will peel away from the flesh as one long inverted bicycle inner tube. Trust me.

Here are two classic eel recipes from France.

Anguille au vert - fresh eel in green sauce, serves 3-4

Having sifted through several good recipes for this dish, I have come up with a combination of herbs and greenery that suit my taste just fine. Although the dish may be served hot or cold, I prefer the latter. It would be perfect for an al fresco lunch, eaten with hot new potatoes.

50g/2oz butter

75g/3oz watercress leaves, chopped

75g/3oz sorrel leaves, chopped

4 sprigs mint, leaves only, chopped

12-15 sprigs flat parsley, leaves only, chopped

8 sprigs tarragon, leaves only, chopped

1 small bunch spring onions, trimmed and finely chopped

1 heaped tablespoon of chopped lovage leaves, if you can find some, or celery leaves

450g/1lb gutted and skinned eel, cut into 2-inch lengths (the ideal width of the eel should be about 112 inches)

salt and pepper

200ml/7fl oz dry white wine

3 yolks from large eggs

2tbsp double cream

squeeze of lemon juice

Melt the butter in a deep-ish shallow pan that has a lid, and put in all the greenery, herbs and the spring onions. Allow to stew gently for a few minutes and then put in the eel on top. Season with salt and pepper and pour over the wine. Bring up to a very, very gentle simmer and cover. Cook for 15 minutes. Lift out the eel and put into a - preferably - deep white dish. Beat the yolks and cream together, then incorporate into the mulchy liquor, stirring as you go. Cook very gently over a thread of heat until the sauce starts to thicken, but watch that you don't scramble the egg. Check for seasoning, add the lemon juice and pour over the eel. Put in the fridge to chill for at least 3 hours, covered with cling film.

Matelote d'anguille - eel in red wine sauce, serves 3-4

I first ate a matelote 17 years ago at the legendary Chez Allard on the left bank in Paris. It was a revelation and remembered as being particularly delicious washed down with a pichet of chilled Chiroubles. Once again, I have worked the dish around to suit my own style; the initial flavouring and cooking of the wine is a method I use for winey stews (coq au vin, boeuf Bourguignonne etc), as it removes excess alcohol, which gives the sauce a softer note.

450g/1lb eel prepared as in the previous recipe

2 tbsp Cognac

1 tbsp red wine vinegar

For the wine reduction:

slightly more than 12 bottle full bodied, fruity red wine

1 tsp redcurrant jelly

1 small carrot, peeled and chopped

1 small onion, peeled and chopped

1 celery rib, chopped

3 cloves garlic, un-peeled and bruised with the back of a knife

2 sprigs thyme

1 bay leaf

50g/2oz butter

75g/3oz thinly sliced streaky bacon or pancetta, cut into slivers

12-15 button onions, peeled (place in a bowl of hot water first; they are then easier to pee)l]

12-15 button mushrooms

2 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped

salt and freshly milled pepper

1 heaped tsp flour

juice of 12 small lemon

1 heaped tbsp chopped parsley

Place the eel in a dish with the Cognac and vinegar and leave to marinate for 6 hours or overnight.

Put the wine reduction ingredients in a non-reactive pan (stainless steel or enamelled) and bring to the boil. Ignite the wine with a match and allow the flames to subside. Turn down to a simmer and cook gently for about 30 minutes until almost reduced by half. Strain into a bowl through a fine sieve and reserve. Melt 25g/1oz of the given butter in a wide deep-ish pan and fry the bacon until coloured. Remove, set aside and add the onions and mushrooms. Cook until golden and just tender, stir in the garlic and re-introduce the bacon. Pour over the flavoured wine, slip in the eel together with its marinade and season. Allow to simmer very gently for 20 minutes or so. Lift out the solids, put into a warmed dish and keep hot, covered, in a low oven. Mix the remaining 25g/1oz of butter and the teaspoon of flour to a paste, and incorporate into the sauce with the aid of a whisk, until smooth. Simmer for 10 minutes to cook out the flour, and then stir in the lemon juice. Pour over the eel and sprinkle with the parsley. Serve very hot, either with boiled potatoes or pieces of fried bread, or both.

Simon Hopkinson is 1997's Glenfiddich Food Writer of the Year for his writing in this magazine

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