CALL TO EEL
I was talking to a continental chef here about our abundance of lake and river fish and how it is seldom eaten in homes or restaurants. The irony is that that angling clubs are as popular as ever, fishing as both a hobby and sport is very big business as well for visitors to Ireland. A lot of the catch is very tasty too; trout, perch and pike are all prized in other countries for the finest tables both domestic and professional. Salmon is the most famous but is quite rare now and is mostly from farms. Most of the freshwater fishing is catch and release too so they do not even make it to the table unfortunately.
There is one fresh water fish that Ireland produces that is particularly sought after abroad though and that is our eel. Most people would squirm at the thought of seeing them alive never mind eating them. If you ever visit east London you will see the jellied eel shops and a lot of them would be sourcing their stock from here. I lived in that area for a couple of years and the locals are very proud of their culinary speciality. It is an acquired taste however.
These days we actually produce some of the best eel in the world in Lough Neagh. I had some from up there a while back and it was truly delicious. It comes smoked as well and that is just wonderful to eat too. Sadly most of it goes for export at premium prices on the continent to Holland, Italy, Belgium and further afield.
The story of eel in Ireland is a long and fascinating tale. It would have been a very popular protein food and rich in fat and nutrients when meat was not so readily available. Eels came from the pacific originally and there are around fifteen species found worldwide now varying in size, breeding habits etc. They start and finish their lives in the sea but live most of it in freshwater. There are stories of giant eels and indeed there is some truth in these fishy stories.
Eels were so widely available in the past and eel weirs were everywhere especially at mills. They were not difficult to catch but it was important to wash, gut and clean them well, especially inside them too leaving no traces of blood. They then would simply be cut in two inch pieces, coated in flour, gently fried in butter, a sprinkle of salt and pepper and served with parsley and lemon if it was available or a splash of vinegar and then plenty of brown bread and butter. You would rarely see anyone eating it now in Ireland or have it on a menu sadly except in some of the very fine dining spots.
The other cooking option was to just boil them whole, scrape off the flesh and then eat them warm, coated with a white parsley sauce or otherwise leave cold and have them with salad and a mayonnaise. The third way was to smoke them for an additional flavour experience like they would have done for smoked salmon, cod or herring.
In other countries eels are cooked in wonderful ways from inside bread in Denmark to the famous kabayaki skewered and soy marinated version in Japan. They also adore the eel liver and even make a soup out of the bones. Eel farming is widespread in Japan as it is not always a guarantee that they will arrive in their droves from the sea.
So it is a pity that for something we produce so well thanks to our positioning off the west coast of Europe that there is no appetite for it from the natives though there certainly was in bygone days. It really is a superb rich taste and so good for us too.