Michael McCarthy: We must find out why the eel is disappearing

Jellied eels look revolting - but cooked any other way the flesh is firm, white and delicious

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"Save The eel" might not quite have the resonance of Save The Whale but it may be just as imperative. If a fish which was once virtually omnipresent in Europe's rivers is disappearing so rapidly, something is clearly going very wrong with its ecosystem somewhere along the line, whether it be in the oceans where it spawns, or the inland watercourses where it spends its adult life. And it behoves us to find out what.

You don't have to be a fisherman or a freshwater biologist to realise it is vanishing. In Hampshire there is an enchanting pub, the Mayfly near Stockbridge, which is right on the bank of the River Test, England's premier trout stream, and one of the delights of sitting on its terrace with a drink is to watch the river's animated life.

In season you can gaze on the mayflies themselves, and pied wagtails and grey wagtails hawking them from the footbridge, while in the waters, if you drop in a lump of bread, great trout swarm up and scrabble for it, brownies and rainbows both, and you can see their dim torpedo shapes hanging in the current, waiting. But to me, as a confirmed fish-watcher, just as exciting has been to look on the slim dark silhouettes underneath them, the huge eels hugging the bottom. Yet on my last three visits the waters have been eel-less. Maybe I was just unlucky.

A commoner way of appreciating the eel, of course, is on the table. I have never eaten jellied eels and I have to say they look revolting but at the risk of sounding an impossible food snob I once ate matelote d'anguilles, eels in a red wine stew, in Bergerac (where Cyrano's statue, I remember, had the end of his nose knocked off); as a young reporter in Dublin I used to go for a Sunday lunch treat to the Shelbourne Hotel in Stephen's Green and have smoked eel with horseradish sauce as a starter; and later, when I used to stay out late in London, I used to eat roast eels with ginger and spring onion in Chinatown. And they were all fab.

The trouble with jellied eels is that the dish prolongs the impression of the beast as slimy and serpent-like, but cooked any other way its flesh is firm and white and delicious. Here's to the eel. Hail to the eel. Save The Eel. (Or to go into Greenpeace mode: Save The Eel, Man!) It's part of the fabric of our lives, and it's slipping away.

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