Head to the far right of Billingsgate Market and you’ll come across a high metal cabinet, water-stained and shut tight. Out-of-the-way and surrounded by freezers and hose-pipes, this cabinet has 42 drawers. Inside every one of those draws? Eels, slippery and grotesque.
While a staple in Japanese cuisine, the eel was rather left behind by the West as fine dining tastes deemed it too obscure and outdated to accommodate. But things are starting to change.
The Billingsgate eel cabinet is part of Mick’s Eels, a stall just opposite. They’ve been around close to 50 years importing eels from both Holland and Ireland, specialising in particular in the smoked variety. Mick’s men have noticed a change in emphasis towards their product in recent years.
“People are definitely more interested in trying eel,” said John Chalveres, who has been with Mick’s Eels for 19 years. “We have a lot of Asian restauranteurs buying our product, we always have - but we have had members of the public attempting the eel much more than in the last decade.”
Dan Doherty, executive chef of Duck and Waffle, has also taken stock of this change.
“There’s always been a misconception of the eel,” Dan told me. “I love it - it’s a genuine British staple. However, with eel, it’s often the case that those who already like it, order it.”
“But there’s a lot more experimentation that comes with dining nowadays. People are more inclined to try something new and it’s up to us chefs to have them love it.”
When Dan had an opening for a dish on Duck and Waffle’s crudo bar (raw bar), he and his chef de partie Lewis Sully decided upon eel.
“I wanted to go with eel because of my background, being an East End boy,” said Lewis during my stage at the restaurant a few months back, “You have to draw from your roots and Dan was more than happy to go with it.”
But with a curious clientele, one must have an interesting take.
“Ours is a take on the classic jellied eel,” Dan explained. “While the traditional method involves boiling eel in stock then letting it cool, bringing out a natural jelly, we make our own vinegar horseradish jelly. It’s served cold with samphire.”
Eel has a very subtle taste. So what it’s served with is so important. The concept of the horseradish jelly, taking the look of a natural process and adding more flavour, really made it stand out.
But my eel odyssey had only just begun, and my next stop was M. Manze. Just south of London Bridge, this is the oldest pie and mash shop in London – and their known for their eels.
I arrived just as they were opening the doors at 10am, thinking I would have the freedom of the shop to investigate.
I was wrong. Droves of builders, who were clearly regulars, poured in for what was their lunch. There is clearly still a real culture behind the celebrated meal of eel, pie and mash. Perhaps one of the British equivalents of cassoulet, ratatouille or even tacos.
“We get loads of Japanese tourists in, as well as our regulars,” one of the chefs, Darren Apps, said. “But we’ve had an increase in young people looking to try their first eel the old way.”
While the eel is still right at home in its London birth place, it’s now swimming to all sorts of fine dining destinations.
Sven Hanson-Britt, MasterChef: The Professionals finalist in 2014, knows The Ritz through and through having spent nearly two years there as a sous chef. He told us how well good eel is received there, and how John Williams loves to get his hands on it.
“The tail end of an eel is more susceptible to a muddy flavour, but the fattier the eel, the better the taste. John does a fois gras terrine with smoked eel when in season and it’s amazing.”
The Ritz and Duck and Waffle are by no means the only advocates of the eel in modern western gastronomy. The eel is enjoying rather a renaissance period. Chefs do love a good wrestle.