A Fragile Delicacy
by John Hanson Mitchell
"I gat eels boil'd in broo'; mother, make my bed soon,
For I'm weary wi' hunting, and fain wald lie down."
The Ballad of Lord Randall
One of the best dishes I have ever had was a plate of baby eels baked in a small casserole dish with olive oil and garlic and a dash of sherry. I was in Spain, in Cádiz, with a friend who knew the city and insisted that we eat at a small bodega he knew of, buried in an alley in a warren of back streets on the north side of town. The place turned out to be one of many wine cellars of the city, where heavy oaken casks line the walls and the tables are worn with the elbows of 500 years of topers. We had a good bottle of manzanilla sherry and ordered our anguillas al horno.
When the dish arrived at the table, the oil was still bubbling and the baby eels, or elvers, as they are called, appeared to squiggle and squirm in the garlicky oil as if they were still alive. They looked like short pieces of gray spaghetti, but I ate them anyway, and the mix of the dry Sanlucar sherry and the delicate moist eel was heady and memorable.
That was in early March. In early April I was in Bordeaux and had another eel dish known as Pibales, crispy elvers fried with parsley, garlic, and wine vinegar. And then in late April, in England, I had an eel broth made from a catch of elvers that were then running up the River Avon.
Eels are not a popular dish in this country, but elsewhere in the world they are considered a delicacy. There are—perhaps not surprisingly—some thirty eel dishes in France alone. In England, they are jellied or boned and flattened and fried with butter and bread crumbs. The Hungarians have a creamed eel recipe, spiced, of course, with local paprika. Russians have a hot eel pie made with brioche dough. And in Italy, where eel is a favored Christmas Eve meal, the fish is broiled, or stewed, or mixed in a risotto, a Venetian specialty.
All of these dishes depend on the fragile survival of two species of eel, the American and the European, which are the basis of these delicacies. Both species of eel breed in the Sargasso Sea, a vast area of floating Sargassum seaweed in the Mid-North Atlantic. The eels spend the first year of their lives in the form of transparent larvae, tiny willow-leaf-shaped things that ride the ocean currents and eventually metamorphose into bright-eyed wormlike elvers, which, in winter, drift en masse toward their respective continents.
Over the course of the winter, they migrate eastward to Europe or westward to North America and congregate just offshore until conditions are right. They come toward shore in spring, and then, as a result of a combination of tides, temperature, and the odor of the freshwater environment, they begin to move up the estuaries.
As the spring progresses, many baby eels swim upstream, running farther and farther inland to quiet freshwater streams, lakes, and ponds, although some will forgo freshwater and spend their entire lives in estuaries and coastal environments. Here, they will remain for the next eight to twenty years, until, again driven by some ill-understood mechanism, they head for the open sea.
Starting in autumn, adult eels leave their native ponds and lakes and swim down rivulets and brooks to larger streams and small rivers, and on to the main stem rivers of the coast, and thence to estuaries and harbors and bays. Once in the open ocean, they turn southward for the vast Sargasso Sea, where they will spawn, and then die, their life cycle completed.
All along this arduous migration, eels are subject to predation, especially in their youth. But predators notwithstanding, ever since the retreat of the glaciers some 15,000 years ago, they have managed to endure the journey from northern climes. Now, because of dams, pollution, overfishing, the presence of nonnative species, and a variety of incomprehensible environmental conditions, possibly including global warming, like so many fish species that make their way between land and sea, they are in decline.
Nevertheless, on the first warm rainy nights of spring, along the hundreds of bays and estuaries of the New England coast, the elvers still mass together, the ancient generative instinct driving them inland.