For donkey's years Suffolk foodies have made a Saturday morning trip to the smoking shed at Butley Oysterage - black as night, glistening with tar and carbon, a bit wonky and rough looking as though built out of driftwood. For me, a smoked eel is the height of delight, a wrinkled dark walking-stick of a thing that yields dense, succulent hot-smoked flesh as unctuous as a hot-corn dodger slathered with sap.
Wild eels were once caught in huge numbers, but in recent years became so scarce they were placed on the endangered list. Most eel smokeries now use farmed Eels, a creature as inferior as farmed Salmon. Hopes are high, however, that assisted re-stocking of our fresh-water living grounds may reverse the decline - as the Indie reports. These tiny glass-eels will adapt physically for the change from sea to fresh water and spend up to twenty years growing to maturity, before returning to the remote Sargasso sea (after another biological change to adapt back to sea-water) to breed. An eel kept in a pond can live to a prodigious age; Athenaeus, writing in the time of Marcus Aurelius, knew tamed eels "wearing silver and gold ear-rings, receiving food from those who offered
it, bits of entrails from sacrificial victims, and pieces of green
cheese."(uhm, Eels don't have ears).
Better than hot-smoked wild Eel - and miles, miles better than wild smoked Salmon - is of course cold-smoked wild Eel; a pale translucent tawny, sliced thinly like smoked Salmon; a few slices with endive and a lemon wedge, or with soft scrambled egg on toast is sheer foodie bliss. Unless you catch and smoke an eel yourself, you are unlikely ever to experience this. For those of you in London, the farmed variety is available at Leadenhall Market - but still at a price.
Anguilla anguilla is one fish well worth saving; so if you catch one, and don't intend to eat it, let it go, and wish it God Speed on its 4,000 mile journey to make more eels.