“I don’t mind eels Except as meals.”
In 1908, Sir Herbert Maxwell, the politician, soldier, naturalist and grandfather of Gavin ‘Ring of Bright Water’, Maxwell’, wrote…
“The eel is excellent, nutritious food, whereof the supply is in no danger of running short in the British Isles. On the contrary, the resources of our waters in the matter of eels is well-nigh inexhaustible, and it is to be regretted that they are not more generally developed, and that our own people do not exert themselves to secure some of the profit which Dutchmen derive from supplying the English market”.
BRITISH FRESHWATER FISHES
Sir Herbert may have been a big fan of the eel (an eelophile?) but his confidence in a continuing abundant supply was misplaced. Since he wrote those words the number of eels living in the wild have steadily diminished, so much so that in 2010 the Environment Agency introduced ‘The Eels (England and Wales) Regulations 2009 implement Council Regulation (EC) No. 1100/2007 of the Council of the European Union, establishing measures for the recovery of the stock of European eels… in short, a closed season on eel fishing. This is good news for the humble eel. The other good news for eelophiles is the closed season which runs from 1st October to 31st March has just ended so if you want some you’d better get down to Sandy’s and order some now!
Knock, knock. Who's there? Eel. Eel who? Eel meet again, don't know where, don't know when...
It is thought by some that Eel Pie Island in Twickenham takes its name from the delicious eel pies baked there by a ‘Mistress Mayo’ and apparently greatly enjoyed by King Henry VIII. It is said that he would often stop his barge on its progress to Hampton Court and send a lackey ashore to buy some. However local historians Dan der Vat and Michele Whitby have scotched that idea in their book “Eel Pie Island”. There was a real ‘Mistress Mayo’, Elizabeth Mayo and she was a member of the family that built the Eel Pie Hotel but that happened in 1830 - not 1530! Elizabeth died in 1895 at the age of 95 and is now buried with her husband and family in Oak Lane Cemetery. I have yet to find if she cooked or even liked eel pie.
Some years ago Dave Wickenden, the chef at ‘Tryst on the Green’ restaurant in Thames Ditton, was encouraged by the British Food Trust website to see if he could conjure up an eel pie in a style to suit the modern palate…
‘Mr Wickenden’s end result was served steaming and golden to some restaurant diners and members of the public, who after recoiling in horror at the thought of eating eel, were all bar none pleased with what they tried. But the reviving of a tradition comes at a cost. With dwindling stocks the price of an eel has risen sharply to an average of £30 per fish. Mr Wickenden said: “We couldn’t even think of putting it on the menu. With all the other ingredients and the work that goes into the preparation, we would have to charge about £18 for a slice of the pie, and that would be before we include garnish or side dishes.’
RICHMOND AND TWICKENHAM TIMES - 10th July 2007
May Bank Holiday 2015 saw the return of the decades old ‘Elver Eating Competition’ to the village of Frampton-upon-Severn in Gloucestershire. The contest was a popular event but the scarcity of elvers - baby eels - forced it to be cancelled. The competition was last held in the village in the 1980s…
“In those days there were literally millions of elvers,” said event organiser Bob Roberts. “But the price went up and up, and the competition died out.”
Now the competition is being reinstated using an eco-friendly Spanish alternative - Surimi elvers - made from shaped fish paste.
Archive footage of Elver Eating competition in Frampton
“Even man deigns to consider elvers a delicacy. Couch, the ichthyologist, was told by a Cornish fisherman that he had seen at Exeter four carts loaded with elvers for sale. They are fried in a form called elver-cakes, presenting, says Mr. Montagu, ‘a peculiar appearance from the number of little black eyes that bespangle them’”.
SIR HERBERT MAXWELL - “British Freshwater Fishes”
When he was a boy my grandfather lived above an eel and pie shop in Church Street, Marylebone. As well as offering warmth, mouth watering smells and easy access to one of the culinary arts finest offerings the shop had a particular feature that drew many visitors. Jellied eels have very sticky bones and it was the customers’ fancy to throw the bones up into the air so that they stuck to the ceiling. After years of trade the shop ceiling was covered with an unpleasant crust of eel bone stalactites. Much to everyone’s disappointment around the time of the 2nd World War the Health Inspectors ordered them down. My grandfather said that in the end it was the Luftwaffe that did the job.
Oliver Cromwell was keen on eels and his wife Elizabeth, a.k.a The Lady Protectress kept a number of recipes using the fish including Roast Eels, Boiled Eels, Eels with Oysters and this one for Eel Pie…
“Your eels being flayed, washed and cut in pieces as long as you think convenient, put to them a handful of sweet herbs, parsley minced with an onion, season them with pepper, salt, cloves, mace and nutmeg, and having your coffin made of good pastry put them in and strew over them two handfuls of currants and a lemon cut in slices, then put on butter and close the pie. When it is baked put in at the funnel a little sweet butter, white wine and vinegar beaten up with a couple of yolks of eggs.”
Demonstrating the parliament, politics, power and pie often go together it was said of Elizabeth Cromwell that “She was as deeply interested herself in steering the helm, as she had often done in turning the spit; and that she was as constant a spur to her husband in the career of his ambition, as she had been to her servants in their culinary employments.”
‘Jellied Eels’ recorded by Joe Brown.
– from Martyn Day