Posts tagged ‘jellied eels’

Mar 8, 2021

Eels – like them or loathe them

Eels have never been popular in Scotland. Elsewhere they’ve been fished and eaten. In the 1920s about 10,000 tons of eels were landed in European harbours, with a value of £2 million. Germans and Danes enjoyed eels, and the English back then who ate 7,000 tons of them annually. Today that amount has dropped to some 29 tons today.

I know of no Scots with a taste for them. That’s not to say there aren’t any but none I have ever spoken to who’s tried them. The verdict has always been something unprintable. I have tasted smoked eel, once. Not nice.

Highlanders who were very superstitious in past times regarded the eel as they did snakes, evil little blighters. It was said a Highlander would no more think of eating an eel as eating a serpent.  And they were not alone, Icelanders and Abyssinians and even ancient Egyptians all turned their noses up at a slithery eel presented as food.

Eels are weird. For long it was a mystery how they reproduced because no obvious reproductive organs were visible to the naked eye and so speculation took hold; they grew out of slimy mud, they were parasitic worms, they came from horse hair. Aristotle believed the mud theory and Pliny that eels reproduced by rubbing up against rocks. Some believed they grew from the carcasses of dead animals or that horse hair cut up and soaked in water would result in eels. That idea took hold in Scotland. I mean who in their right mind would choose to eat anything like that? Lots of folk as it turns out; the type of person who took handfuls, squashed them together to form burgers and fried them. Cartloads of tiny eels no bigger than darning needles were caught in eel buckets and sold throughout England. Or they were sniggled – on mop-like implements that tangled them up on threads of wool or lured them on baited lines

It wasn’t until the 18th century, in 1777, that the existence of an ovary with miniscule eggs, about one-hundredth of an inch and smaller, was first observed and it took another hundred years before any male sex organs were detected in the eel. But reproduce they could. The female eel it was estimated produced about 5 – 10 million eggs.

While Scotland turned its back on fishing wrigglers the English pursued them with glee – and shared eel collection stations on its rivers with enthusiastic German eel dealers. From the river Severn baby eels, elvers, were collected and exported to Germany to stock ponds and inland waterways for future eel fishingthere.

Eels are regarded as fresh water fish but the life of the eel tells a different story.

European eels are born in the western waters of the North Atlantic, around the Leeward Islands in the West Indies and south of Bermuda, on the Sargasso Sea. Only here are eel spawning grounds and it is here that every eel wriggling down every European river and stream goes to spawn in winter and early spring.

Glass eels

Adult eel dies once spawning is complete – at the end of this their second marathon swim – the first as minute eels emerging from the hatching grounds setting out across the great sea to regional waterways. Adults and elvers complete this journey in opposite directions twice.

The hatched eels are tiny and have colourless blood so they are transparent. These larval or glass eels embark on their migration across the Atlantic, north eastwards and eastwards towards the European coasts, a distance of 6,000 km (3,700 mls). These little creatures can’t do this in a flash, it may take three years to complete their journeys from salty ocean to freshwater rivers. The only areas of Europe they cannot make it to are those that feed into the Arctic Ocean and Black Sea.

They swim up Highland rivers and burns into lochs and up Swiss rivers and streams and into the high lakes there. Whichever territory they find themselves they remain, assuming they evade capture, for up to twenty years before embarking on the epic return journey usually beginning in autumn.  This eel is very different in appearance to the transparent little elvers that first swam the ocean. The mature fish are pigmented, very dark skinned above and silvery beneath and grows to around 2 – 4 feet, and they develop large eyes. No, that doesn’t make them any more attractive. Their bodies are loaded with fat to provide sustenance for their journey, completing about 200 miles in about 25 days; about nine miles a day.

Big eels go into that disgusting dish called jellied eels, loved by Londoners, while on the Continent even the tiny glass eels are trapped in baskets and eaten. Double couk.

If not captured eels can live a long time, up to a century it is claimed. Not many have that lifespan. The European eel is now a critically endangered species.

To encourage their spawning without the dangerous journey a Netherlandish project created a swimming machine aimed at stimulating eel hormones during a simulated journey to the Sargasso Sea to ensure eel stocks and maintain a food supply for those with a taste for the wrigglers that has become a critically endangered species.