Monday, August 09, 2010

A dainty dish of eels.

Isaac Walton, the English writer and biographer was born on this day in 1593. His best known work - The Compleat Angler; or, the Contemplative Man's Recreation: A pastoral discourse on the joys of fishing, published in 1653 – is scattered with snippets of culinary information, giving us a very good idea of the role of fish in the diet of the seventeenth century Englishman.

I was a little puzzled by one of his comments about the eel:

“It is agreed by most men, that the Eel is a most dainty fish"

Dainty? The eel? The OED defines ‘dainty’ as ‘of delicate or tender beauty or grace; delicately pretty; made with delicate taste.’ The eel is a fish with the misfortune to look like a snake, which hardly qualifies as ‘delicately pretty’ in most people’s eyes. Nor would eel flesh be considered delicate or delicate-tasting on account of it being very oily – and high cholesterol oily, not Omega-3 oily at that.

In Walton’s time, ‘dainty’ also meant ‘valuable, fine, handsome; choice, excellent; pleasant, delightful’ and ‘precious; hence, rare, scarce.’ I don’t know about ‘scarce’ in Walton’s time, but the eel was certainly valuable as a food – precisely because it was high in oil. Fatty foods were desirable in a time when being thin meant you were starving or sick. Oily fish do taste more substantial and ‘meaty’ too, so were particularly desirable during the many fast days on the religious calendar.

The eel has also been associated with the poor – perhaps because the robust, meaty, oily flesh was considered suitable for less refined folk, or perhaps because it was easily obtained and inexpensive? Just guessing, friends, I don’t really know. Walton himself noted in relation to small eels that ‘The poorer sort … make a kind of Eele-cake of them, and eat it like as bread.’ These ‘eel cakes’ seem to have been patties made from infant eels, known as elvers – I assume these are made much in the same way as is done with whitebait.

The author of The Cult of the Chafing Dish, (1905) certainly felt that eel dishes were not refined:

‘Jellied eels and stewed eels, both East End and racecourse prime favourites, are somewhat too rich and coarse for any save the very ravenous, but it is certain that there is a deal of rich, if perhaps somewhat heavy, nourishment in the eel, and its meat is a great delicacy in any form.’

The popularity of eels in the past is indicated by the fact that there are 25 recipes for eel in Cassell’s Dictionary of Cookery (circa 1870’s). Here is my choice for you today.

Eels, Stewed.
Divide four large eels into pieces of about two inches, and season them with pepper, salt, and a little pounded mace. Lay them in a deep dish with a little veal stock, a bundle of sweet herbs, and a very little chopped parsley sprinkled in over them. Tie down with a paper, first putting some small bits of butter on the top. Stewed eels are always best when done in a moderate oven. Time, one hour or more. Probable cost, 1s. per pound.

On this topic.

A previous post included Isaac Walton’s instructions for making a Minnow Tansy.

Quotation for the Day.

I love such mirth as does not make friends ashamed to look upon one another next morning.
Isaac Walton.


Sharlene T. said...

Well, it just so happens that my grandfather was a fisherman by trade and, except for the ones we ate at home, all his eels were sold to the Japanese because the Americans wouldn't eat them... I can attest that, from the way my grandmother fix them, they were delicious, not orderly, and very light in taste -- or, it is possible that they tasted very light compared to the blood sausages that were served along with them... I suppose if you were a girl eel, your boyfriend eel would probably think you were dainty but he is about the only one... thank you so much for sharing this information... your hard work is very much appreciated...

Twitter: SolarChief

Anonymous said...

I suspect eel was a common dish amongst the lower classes because of their wide availability. There are sources through the nineteenth century that talk about streams and rivers churning with eels in the springtime. It was also an upper class sport to go eel fishing during these eel-heavy periods. People would, according to sources I've read, wade out into the river and toss baskets full of eels up onto the shore, then share them with the villages nearby.