#337 Eel Pie

This recipe puts me three-quarters of the way through the book! Who’d have thunk I’d still be ploughing through it!?

The fourth and final eel recipe from the book just in time for Good Friday, hopefully it will be better than the third which was a disaster…

Eel pies or pasties are a food that has a very long history in Britain. Sometimes they were just simply unskinned eels, herbs, spices and water covered with a ‘coffin’ of pastry, probably eaten as a stew rather like water-souchy; the pastry simply serving as a vessel within which to cook the fish. The earliest mention of eel pie I have found comes from an article by A. Peripatetic in a 19th Century periodical called London Society:
East-Farleigh lies in the hundred of Maidston, and was given to the prior and monks of Christ-Church in Canterbury, by Ediva the Queen, mother of the two kings Eadred and Edmund in the year 941, and was…to find the convent with eel-pies.
Eels are associated the most with London and there is a great old proverb that I discovered is used in Shakespeare’s King Lear, which I can really relate to:
Lear:     Oh me, my heart, my rising heart! but down.
Fool:     Cry to it, nuncle, as the cockney did to the eels, when she put
Them i’the paste alive; she rapt ‘em o’the coxcombs with a stick,
And cry’d, Down, wantons, down!

In other words, she  was so squeamish about killing the eels for her pie, she tried to bake them alive, making the whole situation worse and much more stressful than it would have been had she killed them. The first time I made eel I had to do away with them myself and it was pretty distressing (see here).

King Lear and Fool

I’m quite glad to have come to the end of the eel recipes to be honest because I was starting to feel rather guilty about eating a fish whose numbers have been in sharp decline. Anyways, if you do come across an eel for sale you may as well purchase it and turn it into a little piece of history as I did:
The first thing you need to make is the pastry – an unusual one using grated butter and cream that is somewhere between a flaky pastry and a shortcrust.
Place a block of butter in the freezer until it is well-chilled, but not frozen. Meanwhile measure out 6 ounces of flour and mix in a good pinch of salt. Next grate the butter over your kitchen scales until you have 3 ounces and add this to the flour.
Add enough cream – use either single or soured – or water to form a good soft dough, stirring in your liquid of choice at first with a knife then bringing it together with your hands. I noticed that the flour required more cream than it would have needed if using water. Cover and chill in the fridge for at least an hour. A note to Americans:  Soured cream in the USA is far too thick as an option, so go for something like half-and-half or heavy cream.
Peel and finely chop four shallots and soften them slowly in butter in a wide shallow pan. When cooked, tip them into a shallow pie dish or plate with a capacity of around 2 pints.
Now prepare the eels, you need 1 ½ pounds altogether (if your eels are alive, have a gander at this post and also this one, for the good it’ll do you). The best way to skin them I have found is to cut around the base of the neck, then hold down the head firmly with a dry cloth and pull the skin off in one long piece with a pair of pliers like a slender stocking. Trim the thin ends of the tails and add them to a pan along with the heads to 18 fluid ounces of chicken or fish stock, and simmer them together for around 20 minutes. In the meantime cut the eels into one inch pieces.
Coat the eel pieces in seasoned flour and fry them, in batches if necessary, browning them well. Add more butter if need be. Scatter the eel pieces over the shallots and deglaze the pan with the eel-flavoured stock, and reduce it by about a half, then add 2 tablespoons of medium dry sherry and 5 fluid ounces of double cream. Boil for 2 more minutes before adding ½ teaspoon of thyme and 3 tablespoons of chopped parsley. Season with salt, pepper and lemon juice. Add a further tablespoon of sherry if you fancy. Pour the sauce over the eels and allow the whole thing to cool.
Peel and slice two hardboiled eggs and scatter them over the eel, then roll out your pastry, gluing it to the rim of the dish with some more cream. Add a hole or a slit for the steam to escape and decorate with the trimmings – I went with a very complex eel motif of my own design. Glaze with cream and bake at 220C (425F) until the pastry has turned an appetising shade of brown – around 10 or 15 minutes, then turn down the heat to 180 (350F) for 20 minutes.
Grigson suggests serving the pie with peas or a chicory salad, though I just went with a mixed salad.
#337 Eel Pie. A very good recipe this one – especially if you are a newcomer to eel. The sauce was nice rich, and the eel tender. The good thing about eel is that it has a very simple anatomy so the bones are fairly easy to find and remove. The sauce was a little too thick and overpowered the delicately-flavoured eel a bit. It deserves a healthy 6.5/10.

#313 Jellied Eel Mousse with Watercress Sauce

This is one of the recipes that when I started this project, really made me shudder. However, as I have cooked a couple of eel recipes, I have discovered that I quite like the slippery critter and it no longer seemed such a challenge. Plus all of the weird recipes thus far have turned out pretty good and I have lost all squeamishness; I have a philosophy that in rich countries people eat things because they taste good, not because they need to simply survive.

This recipe is an update of the famous London dish – jellied eels. I have never tried them before and thought it rather a shame that the classic recipe isn’t in the book. Jellied eel is particularly associated with the East End of London though it was eaten throughout the city and appeared sometime in the eighteenth century. At that time, the Thames was crawling with eels and therefore many, many recipes were created. When eel consumption reached a peak during the Victorian era, the Thames had become pretty disgusting with pollution and there were not many eels around, so they had be imported from Ireland. These days, most Irish eels are exported to Holland.

If you wanted to buy jellied eels in London, you would have had to go to an Eel Pie and Mash House. There not many around – they declined in number from over a hundred after the Second World War to just a handful today. The most famous – and London’s oldest – extant Eel and Pie House is Manze’s in Peckham. I have never been to one of these places, but I shall try my best to frequent Manze’s next time I pop down to London. I doubt if they will ever regain popularity, even though eels have now returned to the River Thames.

Inside Menzie’s (photo from The Guardian)

This is an ‘updated’ recipe from chef Guy Mouilleron, who apparently thought of an eel slithering through a bank of watercress and thought the two might might together. The recipe is outdated; fish mousses are certainly a thing of the 1970s and 1980s; when English Food was first published.

Eels are quite difficult to get hold of, but the massive Asian supermarket in St Louis has farmed live ones – luckily I didn’t have to do away with them as I had to for the first time I cooked an eel dish. There is one more eel dish to do in the book, so I suppose I shall be trying that one soon.

To make the mousse, you need to prepare your eels. You’ll need around 2 ½ pounds of eel altogether. If you can get the fishmonger to skin and fillet them for you, all’s the better. I didn’t have such a luxury, but found it quite easy now that I have had certain amount of experience with eel preparation. First of all, give them a wash and wipe away any slime that may remain on the skin. To skin an eel, you first need to cut through the skin all around its neck, behind the gills. Next, either nail the head to a wooden chopping board or grasp the head with a tea-towel. Now you need to pull on the cut skin and peel the skin off like a stocking. It is quite difficult to get a purchase, so sprinkle the neck liberally with salt to create some much-needed friction. Once skinned, it is pretty easy going after that; gut it, cutting from the head-end to an inch or so past the vent so that the kidneys as well as the other internal organs can be removed. Filleting was a bit tricky – but really it was just like filleting any fish really. Use a sharp knife and cut from the head end to the tail end, pressing down on the fish with your other hand, which creates pressure and makes the cut much easier to make.

Cut away about a third of the messy parts and use trimmings to make the mousse itself.
To do this, you need to liquidise them in a blender along with three egg whites. You will produce a rather bad-looking blob of grey matter.
Place it in a bowl that is sitting in iced water. Whip ¾ of a pint of double cream until it is thick, but not stiff, and fold it into the eel mixture slowly. Season the purée and the neat eel pieces with salt, pepper and nutmeg.
All is prepared now for the construction of the mousse: you need to use a terrine for this, or failing that, a small loaf tin. If you want to turn out the mousse onto a serving dish, it is best to line it with cling film (don’t worry, it won’t melt). Now spread a third of the mixture over the bottom of the terrine and then add half of the eel fillets, then more mixture and so on, until all is used up.

Cover the terrine or tin with a double-layer of foil and then steam it for 1 ¼ hours. I used a fish kettle for this, but if you don’t have something appropriate, you can pop it in a roasting tin containing boiling water and bake it at 160-180C (325-350F). When cold, put it in the fridge overnight.

The next day, make the sauce. You need a good-sized bunch of watercress. From the bunch, pick and reserve enough leaves to make around a tablespoon when chopped. The rest, liquidise in the blender, using the smallest amount of water possible. Pass the watercress slurry through a sieve and add ¼ pint of double cream and whisk it until it thickens. Season and stir through the reserved, chopped leaves. Serve a slice of the mousse with a generous spoonful of the sauce.

#313 Jellied Eel Mousse with Watercress Sauce. My God, what a sight that one was! It looked like a massive chunk of cat food and the sauce was so garish. The taste of the mousse wasn’t too bad, but the texture seemed so wrong. If it had been eaten warm as a creamy stew, it probably would have been delicious. The mild fish and the grassy watercress did not go together in my opinion. A big shame because was waiting to be surprised by its loveliness. I think I would have been happier with some proper jellied eels. Keep the fish mousse where it belongs: in the past! 2/10

#304 Water-Souchy

“And lo, Jesus said,
‘Hurry up lads, I am champing at the bit here.'”

There have been plenty of recipes in English Food that have seemed so unappealing on paper, but have turned out good. This one certainly didn’t sound good – a fish stew made from freshwater fish, a few basic vegetables and water. I think it’s the name that did it for me I think – I imagined a thin, watery, muddy-tasting soup. However, every recipe must be cooked and freshwater fish is a bit of a speciality in America, seeing as most of it is far away from the oceans. It would have been a tricky one to do in England without spending a fortune getting a variety of freshwater fish from the fishmonger, or going out and fishing for the buggers yourself. Here, you can just go to the supermarket and choose from a range.

So, water-souchy is a very rustic fish stew made from whatever the angler in the family brought home after a session in his or her waders in an idyllic stream in rural England. Obviously, I am not in England anymore, so I wanted the fish to reflect what I might have caught here on the Mississippi River if I could be arsed to fish there. I had a look in Seafood City, an Asian supermarket on Olive Boulevard in St Louis and bought myself some good fresh carp and catfish. Five pounds of fish are required, and cost me the princely sum of $7.50. Pretty good, I reckon, seeing as I’m rather poor at the moment.

Water-souchy became popular in the seventeenth century and remains so, at least in fishing circles. The word comes from the Dutch waterzootje, and has been described as the bouillabaisse of the Northern Latitudes. According to certain George Augustus Sala, writing in 1895 in Thorough Good Cook, ‘You rarely get it good, save at Greenwich. Why I cannot say‘. Well, it may be to do with the freshness of the fish, says Griggers, the quality of your water-souchy will be diminished if your fish is not perfectly fresh.

To make this simple stew, start off with five pounds of very fresh scaled and cleaned freshwater fish and cut them up into big chunks – no need to bone or fillet, for it is the bones that produce the stock and flavour the dish. Jane suggests perch or a mixture of fish such as perch, carp, eel &c. In a large saucepan, spread three ounces of butter over the base and cover that with the vegetables and herbs: two cleaned and chopped leeks, two chopped celery sticks, two tablespoons of chopped parsley and a bouquet garni. My bouquet garni was made up of a bay leaf, some parsley stalks, three fronds of dill and a crushed garlic clove all tied up in a bunch.

Season these well with salt and pepper and then place the chunks of fish on top. Season those too. Cover with water, bring to the boil and simmer with the lid on for about twenty minutes until the fish is cooked.

Serve in bowls, sprinkled with some croutons of bread fried in butter. I used stale sourdough bread for this, and they were very good, even if I do say so myself. ‘One eats water souchy with spoon and fork’, according to Mr Robert Pierpoint, writing in 1908. It’s the only way you can eat it really.

#304 Water-Souchy. Well as per usual the bad sounding recipe turns out to not be a dud at all. The stew was well-flavoured with the vegetables, herbs and the fish itself. It is really important to choose a pungent and tart herb like dill for something very simple like this I think as it livens things up no end. The fish was very moist, but the thing we all found a little off-putting was the bones. We are too used to eating neat steaks and filleted pieces of fish, I think; so the best way to improve this recipe, we decided, would be to fillet the fish and use the bones, and herbs to make a stock first, drain it, and then cook the vegetables and fish in the clear broth. Indeed, Eliza Acton suggests the same method in Modern cookery, in all its branches (1845). A good stew scoring 6/10 from me, but I think it could easily upped with some minor changes.

#251 Fried Eel with Fried Parsley

I was very impressed when I discovered that The Fish Society sold freshwater eels that they had caught and killed themselves, before freezing them for my convenience. Regular readers will know the stress trauma faced the last time I cooked eels (in both delivery and preparation). The eel population in the UK and Ireland has dropped in recent years, but nowhere near as much as the elver population. I have blogged about this before, but it is becoming increasing clear, especially for Britain that it’s not a good idea to eat adult freshwater eel either now. However, it is not illegal to fish for them, so if taken in small numbers (and who eats eels these days!?) they should be okay. I don’t know what the situation is in the USA though. Are both eels and elvers available here..?

Anyway, enough of my rantings here is the recipe:

This recipe serves four people.

First, you need to prepare your eel; a two-pounder is required here. It needs to be skinned and then cut into three inch pieces. If it has been portioned already, but not skinned, you can either leave it on or fry the pieces skin-side-down in very hot oil for a few seconds. This makes the skin easy to peel off without cooking the eel itself. Next, coat the eel in seasoned flour and fry gently in 4 ounces of clarified butter until browned and the meat comes away from the bones easily. This took me about 7 minutes, but this will depend upon thickness. Next, prepare a lemon-butter sauce by melting 6 ounces of slightly salted butter in a saucepan and adding lemon juice to taste (I used a whole one). Put the eel onto a serving dish and keep warm. Now fry the parsley stalks. Start by heating up oil in a saucepan and fry around 12 parsley sprigs for a few seconds until crisp. Be careful here: the oil will splatter so just fry 3 or 4 at a time. Serve with some lemon-butter sauce poured over the eel, with extra in a jug, and the parsley sprinkled over it.


#251 Fried Eel with Fried Parsley. I have to admit, eel is a tasty fish and cooked this way really shows off it mild, yet delicious flavour. The fried parsley too was very good; like a grassy version of crispy seaweed you get from the Chinese take away! The only problem was the lemon butter – it just made the eel taste greasy. I think tastes have changed somewhat these days, and I think that a lemon mayonnaise would suit it better. However, still a pretty good recipe. 7.5/10.

#234 Smoked Eel

If you have a nice little independent butcher or fishmonger it’s always worth having a quick nosey to see if they have anything different in. I did this at Out of the Blue – probably the best fishmonger in the North-West, at least when it comes to getting hold of weird and wonderful ingredients like the freshwater eel from a few months ago. Well, this time there was freshwater eel on the shelves in abundance, at least in its smoked form.

There are a few smokehouses that smoke eels in Britain, though the eels themselves are usually brought over from Holland and the surrounding countries due to the fact that are fewer of the beasties to found in British rivers.


This is not a recipe, but really a suggestion by Griggers as to the best way to appreciate smoked eel. As a starter, give each person a three inch section of eel fillet along with some good brown or rye bread and butter, a lemon wedge and perhaps some horseradish sauce. That’s it. Enjoy.

#234 Smoked Eel. A true delicacy; and the best way to treat a delicacy is to eat it in the simplest way possible. The flesh was sweet, succulent and firm, not the soft and slightly gelatinous consistency of smoked salmon which I can find rather off-putting. Don’t be squeamish and get it down yer. Fab stuff 8/10.

#197 Sedgemoor Eel Stew

The first of four eel-based recipes from the book (five if you include the elvers recipe) and hopefully the star turn for my dinner party. I chose this one first because I knew them some people would be squeamish about them and this one seemed the least scary. It’s called a stew, but really it’s poached fish in a parsley sauce; a dish that everyone’s had in some way or form before. It’s a classic Somerset recipe this, where there are eels in abundance (according to Griggers); this is not the case so much these days, certainly for Manchester. However, I did get them. Try your fishmonger and you never know; I got mine from Out of the Blue in Chorlton. Be warned – you do get them live, so be prepared to kill them and prepare them yourself. Read how I went about it here.

This serves six easily.

You need three to four pounds of clean and skinned freshwater eel for this recipe. Begin by cutting the eel(s) into even-sized portions of around two inches in length. Season them lightly. Make a stock from the eel heads and skin as well as the flat part of the tails: Place the trimmings in a pan and cover them with half-water, half-cider (use good dry cider). Bring to a boil and then cover and summer for twenty minutes.

Arrange the eel pieces in a shallow pan and pour over enough hot stock to barely cover the eels. Poach the eels for around fifteen minutes, until the eel meat starts to come away from the bones. Don’t let the stock come to a proper boil though – steady poaching is the key, and it may take longer with thicker eels. When cooked, remove the eel pieces and arrange them on a serving dish, cover them with cling film and keep them warm.

Now make the sauce by boiling down the cooking liquor until it tastes strongly and then add ¼ pint (i.e. a 150 ml pot) of clotted, Jersey or double cream and four tablespoons of chopped parsley. Season again if required. Pour the sauce over the eel and serve. She suggests serving this stew with toast or fried bread. As fried bread had already featured in the last two courses, I went for toast. I also served some broccoli too.

#197 Sedgemoor Eel Stew. This was really good; the sauce was both sharp and creamy due to the cider and fresh with grassy parsley. The flavours were robust, but not too strong to mask the eel itself. It was very delicate in flavour; you could tell that they had come from a very good river as it tasted of fresh springwater. It stayed beautifully moist due to the gelatinous nature of it too. Much superior to salmon or trout, I think. Now that people don’t eat eel, I feel I have found a real hidden gem. I just have to go through the rigmarole of killing and cleaning them! At least I can say that this was the freshest fish I’ve ever had! 8.5/10

FYI: delicious as eel maybe, beware if someone offers you raw eel, say as sashimi. Eel blood is toxic before it is cooked, so if you get given a bloody bit, it could be a bad man trying to do away with you.

…Next, Simply Prepare Your Eels

So how do you kill and prepare an eel? Well, if you look in English Food, Griggers just says to ask your fishmonger to do the dirty work. The was not to be the case for me, for two main reasons: my fishmonger (and pretty much any fishmonger in the country, I hasten to add) had never dealt with them at all. Remember: fishmongers do not receive live fish, apart from the odd lobster or crab perhaps, so this was just as out of his comfort zone as mine. The second reason was that I felt it part of my duty as a meat-eater to do this. Every animal we have eaten has had to be killed. These days, however, the consumer hardly ever does this themselves. We are too far removed from our food these days and therefore disrespectful of it so some degree. This is a way of addressing this issue for me. I did not expect to find it easy. In fact I was very nervous; I had never killed anything in my life and I was not looking forward to it. I didn’t want it to be easy; I wanted it to be distressing (for me, not the eels). We take all this animal killing in our stride.

The eels await their fate in their little polystyrene prison

I have gone off on a tangent. Larousse Gastronomique gives you these instructions on how to prepare an eel. It sounded all so easy:

To kill an eel, simply seize it with a cloth and simply bang its head violently against a hard surface. To skin it, simply put a noose around the base and hang it up. Simply slit the skin in a circle just beneath the noose. Simply pull away a small portion of the skin, turn it back, take hold of it with a cloth and simply pull it down hard.

I added the “simply”s. Well it didn’t quite go like the description in Larousse. So here’s what we ended up doing:

First up, you need to have a couple of rums to help prepare you. That’s what Paul and I did and I think it helped. We fannied around a bit before Charlotte walked in from work, grabbed one in a cloth and gave it several massive thwacks again the wall. Job a good one? No. It was still alive! She gave it another couple and it went limp. This was not like killing a trout with a short, sharp crack on a stone. We felt quite distressed about the several hits that we had to give it to kill it – we didn’t want to cause any unnecessary suffering. So the new plan was to hit it once to knock the others out or slow them down, and then chop the heads off with a meat-cleaver. I know this might sound extreme but, it seemed like the best thing – plus I remember it being the method I remember seeing some chef doing on telly once. We did it, and guess what? They were still moving about! I took the two now headless eels to the, plus Charlotte’s to the skin to rinse, and revived Charlotte’s. Off with its head.

Before you get angry about any mistreatment here – it turns out that they were all dead quite early on. We worked this out because all three eel bodies were still seemingly happily snaking around in the sink a good 45 minutes post-beheading. It seems that much of their behaviour is down to instinct and their autonomic nervous system. Though I’ve no idea how this happens and why it’s so different to other fishes. Below is the rather gruesome video of the headless eels I took when they were in the sink. I mentioned the whole episode to Matthew Cobb (who I work with at Manchester University) who said he’ll put a link to this post on his z-letter. (FYI: The z-letter is weekly newsletter about all things zoological.) Hopefully I shall find out why they just don’t conk out. Be warned before clicking on the video if you are squeamish, remember too though that they are dead. Also, I apologise for my rather camp commentary. Let me know if you can tell me anything about eels and their habit of moving and swimming long after death.

The next stage of preparation is to skin them. In our panic, thinking we hadn’t killed eels when we had, we cut off the heads so couldn’t do the noose trick outlined in Larousse. Instead, we tried to make slit down the base and peel the skin away some other way. Anthea had arrived by this point, to find us sweating, giggling and holding bloody carving knives, and she suggested using some salt as it would give grip against their very slimy skins. At first all this seemed to do was kick-start the wriggle reflex again, but eventually – with Anthea restraining the wriggling eel with yet more cloths – I managed to get a purchase on the eel and pull the skin off in one piece. Just two more to go.

The hard work was done, just the gutting to do. At last I was on familiar territory. I’ve gutted fish several times before. To do this, make a cut from its anus – you’ll see it, about halfway down – to the neck end and pull away any innards away from the rib cage. Give it a rinse and you are done.

Well I have to say it was a pretty distressing episode, it wasn’t as bad as we thought at the time. I now know that eels carry on a-moving quite a while after death. So, to sum up:

1. Holding a cloth, hit your eel several times very hard against a wall.
2. Whilst the eel is limp, quickly cut off its head with a cleaver or very sharp knife.
3. Using salt as an abrasive, pull the skin back – persevere here – until you have a good inch of skin eked away, then pull off like a big macabre witch stocking.
4. Gut and wash the eel.

It sounds so easy put into four sentences.