Thursday, September 21, 2006

The Eel Pie incident.

Today, September 21st …

An eel pie was blamed for the death at the age of 58 years, of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V on this day in 1558, but it seems a little unlikely that his dinner was to blame, given the known details. Fifty-eight years was a good age in the sixteenth century, and Charles was already a sick man, crippled with gout (proven by recent analysis of one of his mummified fingers), and possibly diabetic. Because of his poor health and limited mobility (and severe pain), he had virtually retired to the monastery at Yuste in Spain two years earlier.

We would probably now suspect that he suffered from the “metabolic syndrome” – a disease of over-nutrition, and rare in a time when most people had trouble getting enough to eat. He was known for his voracious appetite for meat and alcohol, and although his physicians apparently recommended a strict diet, it seems he ignored them, or it was already to late. It seems unfair to cast the blame at the monastery kitchens as he had three weeks of “indigestion” before his death, suggesting a cardiac problem rather than food-poisoning.

Eel was a popular food in previous times – one enjoyed by the poor (eels were common in the waterways of Europe) as well as the rich. It was particularly enjoyed on the many fast days of the calendar, probably because it is a “meaty”, substantial fish. In fact almost 60% of eel flesh calories come from fat, a high proportion of which is saturated - not the best dish for a middle-aged man with existing health problems such as the Emperor had.

Eel is not so popular nowadays. Why is it so? The high fat content that once made it a desirable food is a negative feature in these obese times, so the nutrition police have probably black-listed it. Our modern desire to remain as far away as possible from the more gruesome aspects of obtaining our daily food probably has something to do with it too, as most of us no longer relish jobs such as skinning eels, even if we still want to cook and eat them. I suspect however the major reason is that eels, although unequivocally fish, do, as Mrs Beeton said “in their general aspect and manners, approach, in some instances, very nearly to serpents”.

Recipes for the Day …

In case a consignment of eels comes your way (pre-skinned of course), or you get lucky fishing, I give you two recipes. One is from the cookbook of the Master Cooks of King Richard II in about 1390, and one from Mrs Beeton, who in spite of her negative opinion of eels, gives recipes for them boiled, stewed, fried, collared, à la tartare – and in pie.

Congur in Sawce.

Take the Conger and scald hym. and smyte hym in pecys & seeth hym. take parsel. Mynt, peleter, rosmarye, & a litul sawge, brede and salt, powdour fort and a litel garlec, clowes a lite, take and grynd it wel, drawe it up with vyneger thurgh a cloth. cast the fyssh in a vessel and do the sewe onoward & serue it forth.

Eel Pie.
1 lb. of eels, a little chopped parsley, 1 shalot; grated nutmeg; pepper and salt to taste; the juice of 1/2 a lemon, small quantity of forcemeat, 1/4 pint of bechamel (see Sauces); puff paste.

Skin and wash the eels, cut them into pieces 2 inches long, and line the bottom of the pie-dish with forcemeat. Put in the eels, and sprinkle them with the parsley, shalots, nutmeg, seasoning, and lemon-juice, and cover with puff-paste. Bake for 1 hour, or rather more; make the bechamel hot, and pour it into the pie.

Tomorrow’s Story …

The Banquet of the Mayors.

Quotation for the Day …

“Fear death, for when you’re dead, you cannot then eat eels.” Greek comic poet Philetaerus, 4th C B.C.


Elise said...

Hi Janet,

Did you by any chance catch this video on the BBC? It's about an old eel pie and mash shop in England.

I've never had eel in pie before, though when I lived in Japan I couldn't get enough "unagi donburi" or seasoned fried eel over rice. Yummmm.

The Old Foodie said...

Hello Elise. I didn't see the BBC doco but I am familiar with the eel pie and mash shops and history of London (and Paris). In 2001 I was going to take a group on a food history tour of London and Paris, but just as it was gearing up 9/11 happened and travel plans for many people ground to a halt - which was disappointing but nothing compared to the real grief of the day of course. The travel company wanted us to go for it again the next year, but by then both my husband and I had gotten involved in other commitments and did not have the time. I'd love to do it one day though. The pie and mash shops were on the tour. If we do ever get to organise it again, I'll be sure and let you know!

Mal said...

There's a new Pie and Mash website at It has a full listing (with details) of every known P&M shop and you can review and rate your favourites (and unfavourites). There's tons of information about pie and mash and you can share your memories with other like minded pie'n'mashers.


The Old Foodie said...

Mal - a belated thankyou for this information: must look these up next time I come to the UK!