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The slippery business of eels in Sweden

19 November, 2019
Eel fishing

Mats and Max are the third generation of eel fishermen and are considered the very best and most knowledgeable out there. They are highly educated in all aspects of both fishing and environmentalism. Back in 1994 they even launched Eel academy with the aim of protecting the eel as a living treasure and keeping the tradition of eel parties alive. But what started as very much eel fishing focused over the years turned into environmental activism – but a very pragmatic one. “If there’s no clean water, there’s no fish, it’s simple,” they explain.

Eel fishing

They also make a case of how it’s really the hydroelectric power plants that are threatening the eels, not the fishermen. “70 percent of eels who pass these power turbines on their migrating route will be dead. That’s the real eel enemy, not us,” they say. Together with other eel fishermen they are now actively lobbying to make streams around the power plants, a kind of safe passage for all fish. Per Vidlund from Ängsö Fisk AB fishery in Västerås outside Stockholm that supplies fish to many top restaurants in Sweden and has been for years at the forefront of finding new ways for sustainable and least invasive fishing, paints a complex picture of several different reasons that contributed to eel being put on the Red List – and small scale fishing is not one of them. Power plants, cormorants that came in in 1984 and water pollution.

“I saw a list of 10 of Sweden's worst functioning sewage treatment plants. 3 of them are located in Lake Mälaren in Skåne, which is also drinking water source for 2 million people. According to the law viruses, bacteria, phosphorus and nitrogen must be cleaned, but drug residues, estrogen-like substances, chemicals, microplastics etc. do not" says Vidlund.

Tasting the authenticity

No wonder eel, this mythological creature, has always had a very special place in people’s imagination. To this day. Even their journey to the North after spawning in the Sargasso Sea is an epic one, 7.000 kilometers and a couple of years long before they reach the Baltics. They are also known for their longevitythe oldest eel they ever found was 130 years old, living deep in a well, taunting several generations of villagers. The eels we caught that day – a boatload of them – were between 15 and 20 years old. Thick, meaty, fatty creatures.

Back to the boat, the silver-haired twins seem pleased. “This was a good catch. You brought us luck,” winks Mats. “You can get your aquavit now.”

With that – and a colorful traditional drinking song Max breaks into - the feast in the hut commences. There’s all kinds of bottles of “eau de vie” there in the rustic wooden red cabin, adorned with fishing nets, portraits of vetted fishermen, hooks, old maps, bottles of God-knows-what, fishing lanterns, rusty ladles and graters and reels of birch, serving as coasters on which the brothers place huge pots of steaming creamy eel soup. “It’s just eel tail, carrots, thyme, fennel, and milk,” they shrug. The soup is fabulously tasty, thickened by sheer eel fat and collagen.

Eel baked with its skin

The second course is even better, a tray of thick slices of eel, skin-on, that’s been first baked, then smoked in the chimney overnight, so that it’s both smoky and crunchy at the same time. We start applying that “1 cl of aquavit per 1 cm of eel” rule which is working really well at cutting through the fat.

The third incarnation of the eel is the boiled one, a hands-down winner at eel parties, they inform us. It’s served with boiled potatoes, thick mustard sauce and “a secret ingredient”, few drops of Absolut Ren vinegar with 24% of alcohol content. It’s used for pickling herring – and cleaning windows. It tastes accordingly.

Next up is fried eel with caramelized apples and mashed potatoes with some syrup and the very last course is eel, smoked in the oven at 78 degrees, served with scrambled eggs, a surprisingly pleasing combination.    

It’s the kind of authenticity that’s rare to find anymore. But the clock is ticking on this tradition like many others, jeopardized by this or that reason. And the fishermen, who speak about eel fishing with both sparks in their eyes and some sadness, seem to know that.

Dominique Crenn at Identità Golose 2019

Dominique Crenn takes meat off the menu

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