First, Catch Your Eels…

There are four eel recipes in English Food: fried eel, jellied eel, eel stew and eel pie. If I’ve any chance of cooking all the recipes in English Food, I realised that I really need to start sourcing the more unusual ingredients. I also needed to source people prepared to eat them. Eels were once very popular, particularly in South-Western England and London. They aren’t so much these days for two reasons – people are scared of eels, and the baby eel (elver) population has crashed, causing some concerns of the future of the European eel. I‘ve discussed the elver issue in an earlier post. The adult population has gone down as a knock-on effect, but not to dangerous levels. It is a shame that people don’t want to eat them as they are tasty, but it is probably a good thing for their population. There’s is nothing wrong with fishing for then in small numbers however.

Before preparing and cooking your eel, you have to get hold of some from somewhere, no mean feat, not for you, but for the poor fishmonger you talk into getting them for you.

The European Eel

Whilst shopping in Manchester, I popped into the Arndale Market to see if there was anything interesting on the off chance. There wasn’t, but I thought I’d enquire about eels. He said there’d be no problems, he just needed a bit of notice, so off I went and organised a dinner party and invited people round. When I rang up, the guy who answered said “sorry mate, but I’ve not seen eels for years, there’s no chance”. Oh dear. It seems that eel would be off the menu completely.

I didn’t give in, and as soon as I got to work, I rang the one place that I knew would find out for sure if eels are still available: Out of the Blue in Chorlton. Out of the Blue is a great fishmonger, and has won many an award. I used to use them all the time when I lived there. After a bit of detective work from their end, I got a phone call back a few days later and as if by magic, Dave Yarwood, the owner said he’s managed to get hold of some for me and they’d be ready by the Friday. Also – something I didn’t realise, you get them live. I knew the fishmonger would probably get them live, but I didn’t know I’d have to do away with them myself.

Feeling rather nervous throughout the week, it was finally Friday and off I went to Chorlton full of trepidation. In the shop, Dave asked me to come behind the counter where there they were – three freshwater eels swimming around in a big water-filled box. I remained as calm outside; inside, I was bricking it. What the hell!? I’m going to have to do away with three eels. I’ve never killed anything in my life, houseflies aside. I’d like to point out that Dave Yarwood is a total star for this – the amount of effort he put into getting hold of these eels for outweighed the effort I put in prepping or cooking them. He had to drive all the way to Sandbach at some god-awful time in the morning only to get there to find no one around. He did find a note on the door saying the eels were in a bag in the stream round the back!

Out of the Blue, Chorlton

I got a taxi back home and put the box of eels in the backyard. I started to prep all the other food for the dinner party, looking outside every two minutes at the box. Time was getting on and I knew I had to do the deed soon. Luckily for me Paul was coming round to give me a hand… Though what was about to happen next was pretty distressing for me and the eels both! See here

Can’t Cook…Won’t Cook…

There are several ingredients in English Food that I have assumed that I won’t be able to cook, at least not in England. But watching television last night, it seems I can.

The Supersizers Go… Is a series showing off the eating habits of the English through the ages and last night they went Victorian. The presenters are a bit self-indulgent but it’s good mindless TV. Giles Coren and Sue Perkins tucked into giant game pies, calf’s ears, jellies, plum duffs, bad curries, croquettes, offal, offal and offal. It seems that English really food comes into its own here – many of Jane Grigson’s recipes are very similar to the dishes cooked then; in fact it was her daughter, Sophie that did the cooking. The main ingredients were butter and brandy, it seems, but it was all very restrained and frugal. Unless your very rich, or it was Christmas.

FYI: The Christmas as we know it now was invented in the Victorian era, courtesy of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and Charles Dickens

One of things that really surprised me was the amount of game that our presenters were allowed to eat. One of the dishes contained snipe – I assumed that there are too rare to shoot these days, but obviously not. Searching on the web, I find that all the game birds that Jane Grigson lists in the game section of the tome are still legal game, including ptarmigan and wigeon. The other big surprise was that one meal’s centrepiece was a boiled calf’s head with the brain served in a garlic butter sauce. I thought that due to the BSE crisis, bovine brains couldn’t be eaten any more. It seems that I am wrong. It also seems that they taste vile. It also seems that I will be able to do the calf brain recipes. Damn.

On Channel 4 later that evening was Gordon Ramsay’s effort, The F-Word. I’m never sure whether I like the programme, yet I seem to watch it every week. This week he was fishing for elvers – baby eels – in Somerset. There is one recipe that uses elves in English Food, and I thought, as I have studied eels and elvers in the past that because elves numbers had dropped by 98 percent it would no longer be legal to fish for them, that they would be protected or something. Well, you have to have a special licence, but you can fish for them. If you want to buy them, they’ll set you back up to £525 a kilo. It took him 4 hours to collect enough for three measly portions. I know that the reason for the drop in numbers is not known, but surely fishing the remaining few is not going to help. I know I won’t be a part of it.

So it seems that there isn’t anything I can’t cook, but some things I won’t.