Thursday, September 17, 2009
Slide ‘em down your throat like wonky wheels…
Name that tune as some old tv programme catch phrase went. Got it? Jellied eels. I experienced one of those coincidences that set in train a whole barrage of images,. I was watching TV in a Paris hotel and BBC World had an item about eels being yet another dying breed. Apparently 90% down on its population in the UK, the eel is on its way towards the same oblivion to which we all seem to be heading on Planet Earth: this, despite its bravely versatile habit of crossing untold miles of land, sea, river and lake in search of food and its lover in the wide Sargasso Sea, where it breeds. I caught a few of these serpentine savages in my youth and then, when I had sons, they, too, had that frisson of excitement crossed with horror, as they hooked the maniacally twisting creature, greedy for their worms. In the lochs of north east Scotland, where local fishermen would never cast their superior lines because of their obsession with trout and salmon in rivers, I taught the boys to spread a newspaper on the bank and drop the creature upon it before disgorging the barb; otherwise hands, line and fishing net would be covered in their noxious slime.
It never occurred to me to cook it. Back it was despatched to continue its relentless journey. Being a northern boy from a pit village, eels weren’t on my menu. I stretched a point for the bony pike, a decent dace and whatever fed off the end of the sewer pipes on the Tyne, baking them on a make-shift fire, but eels did not inspire the savage imagination in me, unlike southerners.
It was rather late in life that I bought eel from a north Norfolk smokehouse and discovered its delightful taste and texture. Slightly herring-like and yet more fulsomely reminiscent of shark, I ate it when I could get it. Then there was a great hiatus and none was offered by shop or restaurant.
Until this lunch time.
Then, in St Germain, at a delightful fish restaurant called La Poissonerie where we have eaten several times, smoked eel was miraculously on the menu. Served on a little stack of marinated carrot, a meaty slice perched with a round of fresh cream atop, like a chef’s hat and surrounded by a circle of pale green gooseberry juice producing an exact simulation of a loch’s surface, with the hills beyond, it captured the entire history of my relationship with the wild creature.