Unusual Ingredient of the Week - Smoked Eel

And this weeks unusual ingredient is something that is rapidly becoming not so unusual and with good reason; Smoked Eel is an exquisitely flavoured robust delicacy (once you’ve tasted it, you’ll understand the oxymoron), that seems to polarise people more than any other dish I’ve attempted to serve. I think this is in no small part due to people’s phobias of snakes and things that slither. I also think that people have these childhood memories of polystyrene cups filled with chunks of eel in jelly, doused in malt vinegar and eaten by the seaside. It doesn’t seem so bad to me but then I have a fascination with all seafood (to the point where I would try Fugu or the physically repellent Horseshoe Crab, but probably only after much Sake).
In truth, smoked eel was the first time that I’d tried eel in any of its incarnations. My worldly husband has enjoyed eel as part of sushi and loves it but hadn’t tried it smoked until we discovered it’s mysterious delights in the UK.
Just like deep-frying, we Brits love to smoke food. I’m not sure if it’s because we’re scared of the taste of real meat, or whether our taste buds have been numbed through copious ingestion of tobacco and alcohol so we need that extra hit of salty smoke to fire up our appetites. Perhaps it simply comes from a time before we had access to refrigeration and we could only rely on a cold, dank cellar to preserve meat and we buried vegetables in sand (which actually is still a very effective way of storing root vegetables that you may have over-stocked) to store them away from winter frosts.
First it was cheese (and you haven’t lived if you haven’t tried smoked goats cheese), then garlic (which gives a wonderfully pungent yet musky taste to simple dishes) and salt (perfect for barbequed meats), now eel seems to be the most exciting thing to come out of a smokehouse since Arbroath Smokies.
Eels are a dense meat with a central bone, which makes eating them that bit more pleasurable than other bone-ridden fish (for example, grandfather’s choice, kippers). When they have been smoked, they are particularly easy to handle. Slice them down one side of the spinal bone, lengthwise, so you are left with one fillet. Repeat for the other side. The skin (which is tough enough to make my waste disposal unit scream for mercy), is even easier to remove. Run a spoon between the skin and the flesh at the top of each fillet and firmly run it downwards. Tamasin Day-Lewis rather disturbingly equates this to removing a lady’s stocking, but Anais Nin-isms aside, it is as simple as that. You will find that the eel flesh is substantial, succulent, oily and incredibly rich, much more so than mackerel or kippers but this is reflected in the price. However, for about £13.00 you can get a small, whole eel (400g) that would feed maybe 6-8 people as a delicious appetiser (served, in chunks, with potato pancakes, crisp streaky bacon and homemade horseradish sauce or in a salad with a tangy dressing to cut the rich, smoky oilyness), or, if you can only afford a couple of fillets, made into a coarse pate and served with toasted granary bread and some lemon wedges.
Smoked Eel is available from local food emporiums (I recently purchased some from the Food Company in Marks Tey, which was smoked locally in Orford, Suffolk) and from the masters of eel smoking, Brown and Forrester who will ship it mail order. Well worth buying, it would make a wonderful and original starter for Christmas Lunch (and for those snake-loathing family members, you could always pretend that it's smoked mackeral).

1 comment:

Saffron said...

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