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Eel from A to Z: 26 things to know about eels

Eel from A to Z: 26 things to know about eels

What are eels? From Angulas to Zambezi, 26 facts and figures about eel fish, its culinary uses, nutritional values and much more.

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Angulas a la Bilbaina. The much sought-after elvers or baby eels of the Basque culinary tradition are pan-tossed with olive oil, garlic, and chili pepper. This delicacy, which has now become rare and therefore expensive, is also sold vacuum packed or in a jar.

Belgium. Along the Scheldt river, Flemish people used to fish for eels and cook them with wild herbs (parsley, mint, wood sorrel, watercress, and cow parsley): a traditional dish of Belgian cuisine that continues to be popular today. It is known as "paling in't groen", eel in green sauce.

Civelles. These are the baby eels that are fished off the northern coast of France as far as Brittany. When everyone could afford them, they found their way into salads, or were combined with other types of fish, molluscs or crustaceans, or were simply dipped in flour and quickly fried for serving with a light vinaigrette sauce (Nantes). In Italy, they are known as "cèe" or "cieche". In English-speaking countries, they are called "elvers" or "glass eels": in England they were a popular fried food until the early 90’s. The collapse of the fishing industry, however, has completely altered their value and they now cost as much as caviar!

Distribution and habitat. Of all eel varieties (800 species in all), the most common are: the European eel ("Anguilla anguilla"), the American eel ("Anguilla rostrata"), the Japanese eel ("Anguilla japonica"), also widespread in Korean seas, in the East China sea and to the north of the Philippines, and the Australian eel ("Anguilla australis" or "shortfin eel"). The New Zealand eel is also very well known ("dieffenbachii" or "longfin eel"), being one of the largest, in terms of length and weight.

Eel. The name of a restaurant currently "très à la mode" in Paris (located at no. 27 rue d'Hauteville, in the 10th arrondissement), where chef Adrien Ferrand presents his refined proposals such as eel in matcha sauce and kiwi with blitzed almonds.

Fine dining. Wherever it is fished, eel is an eclectic ingredient that even lends itself to fusion recipes. From marinated eel pan tossed with coconut and saffron sauce by celebrity chef Luke Nguyen, or the refined simplicity of slices of eel roasted with garlic and rosemary for serving on a bed of white polenta, signed by Maria Grazia Soncini of the "Capanna di Eraclio" in Codigoro (Italy).

Gulas. Having become such a rarity, elvers have given way to a substitute known as “gulas” which, in actual fact, is surimi.

Hans Brask. The Bishop of Linköping (Sweden) inspired an academic study on XVI century Swedish food traditions. Unfortunately, the book is only available in Swedish... but we can reveal that it describes his huge Christmas dinner of 1520 in which, together with a long list of other delicacies, there is a dish of eel with mustard.

Italy. Comacchio on the Po delta (in the region of Emilia Romagna) is one of Italy’s eel "capitals": the eels from the Sargasso Sea are mysteriously attracted to these valleys, where they arrive in the late winter/spring season. As well as the eels of Comacchio (which have inspired as many as 48 different recipes), equally famous are those of the Orbetello lagoon (Tuscany), and Cagnano Varano and Lesina (Apulia) along with those from Lake Bolsena (Latium) – of which Pope Martino IV was known to be particularly fond – and the Sardinian eels from Cabras.

Jangeo-gui Korean grilled eel. The filets are first marinated (with soy, sugar, sesame seeds, and oil or ginger, garlic, green onions, and white pepper) and then grilled: they are dipped into a sauce before being eaten and, if so desired, wrapped in leaves of cabbage, lettuce or sesame.

Kcal. Eel has a high fat content (over 25%!). Consequently, it also has a high calories count: approximately 270 kcal per 100 grams. If grilled, however, it loses up to 50% of its fat.

London. In the XVIII century, what is considered today to be a typical English specialty, first appeared in the East End: jellied eels. Cut into slices and boiled in water and vinegar with nutmeg and lemon, the eels are left to cool: the collagen they release forms a natural jelly. The same dish is known as ål i gele in Denmark, aspic d'anguille in France, aal in aspik in Germany and węgorz w galarecie in Poland.

Middle ages. In the Middle Ages, eels were enjoyed by all and sundry, rich and poor alike: from the simple eel broth eaten by the English in the XI century to more complex spicy recipes with wine or almond milk in Germany and the South of Europe, not forgetting the recipe for skewered eel spit-roasted with bay leaves of the Italian tradition, which is still popular today.

Nives. Interpreted by Sophia Loren, Nives is the protagonist of La donna del fiume (Woman of the River), a film of 1954 directed by Mario Soldati: it tells of a proud and beautiful girl who works in an eel marinating factory in the Comacchio valleys. There is a famous picture of Loren in which she is portrayed surrounded by tins of marinated eels.

Osaka. The Japanese city of the Kansai region is one of the most famous locations for grilled eels: according to the enthusiasts, the unagi from Osaka is crisper than that of the Kantō regional cuisine, which contemplates steaming the eels before they are grilled.

Pie and Mash Shops. Also known as "Eel & Pie Houses", these were popular London eateries which sprang up between the XVIII and XIX centuries: they used to serve eel pie with mashed potatoes and eel liquor sauce, a parsley sauce made from the cooking water of eels. The earliest evidence of such eateries (1844), is that of Eel & Pie House run by Henry Blanchard at 101 Union Street in Southwark. The oldest establishment, on the other hand, is that of "M. Manze": it was opened in Peckham in 1902 and is famous for its stewed and jellied eels.

Quo vadis. The restaurant by Jeremy Lee in the Soho district (London) has made the news for having created this simple yet satisfying sandwich filled with smoked fillets of eel, horseradish and red pickled onions.

Red List. In 2010, European, American and Japanese eels were declared to be threatened species and therefore included in the “red lists” of the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) and Greenpeace International.

Slow food. No one visiting the Po Delta area can possibly fail to taste the marinated Eel of the Comacchio Valleys, a famous Slow Food nutritional. The most typical and ancient method of processing this fish has recently been reintroduced now that the factory facility (and museum) has been restored within the Manifattura dei Marinati in the centre of Comacchio.

Tuna kuwharuwharu. The name given to eels by Māori people: considered to be a gift from the gods, they were generally dried or smoked.

Unagi. The name given to freshwater eel in Japan (while saltwater eel is known as anago) which is the essential ingredient of unadon, eel filet in reduced soya sauce grilled and served on a bed of steamed rice.

Venice. One of the most typical Christmas recipes of the Venetian culinary tradition is stewed eel with white polenta. However, Venice is not the only Italian city to serve eel at Christmas: it is also very popular in Lesina (Foggia), for instance, where it appears in a rich soup with seasonal vegetables, and in Naples where no Christmas is complete without fried capitone (female eel).

Wasabi. The ubiquitous accompaniment to sushi and sashimi, it also adds a note of freshness to the rich consistency of eel flesh, helping to cleanse the palate when indulging in this fatty delicacy.

X-rated. At Expo 2015, eel was included in the top ten list of aphrodisiacal foods: its effect would seem to be on a par with chilli pepper, almonds, pistachios, saffron, chicory, sweet peppers, garlic, onions and 'nduja.

Yucatan. The American eel comes from the seas of the Yucatan peninsula, before heading for the north Atlantic coast of the USA. Yves Delage (1854-1920) The French zoologist who first identified eel elvers: before1886, they were believed to be a different fish species altogether.

Zambezi. One of the long journeys of the African eel (bengalensis labiata) starts out from the seawaters to the north of Madagascar. From the Mozambique Channel it goes up the rivers of the Zambezi river system as far as Caprivi’s Finger (Namibia). In Africa, it is not very popular: those who do cook it, however, recommend stewing, grilling or frying.

 

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