On a chilly winter’s night in 1922, a young Danish scientist, Johannes Schmidt, stood up at the Royal Society in London and presented his paper ‘The Breeding Places of the Eel’.
What would become known as ‘Schmidt’s Classical Theory’ overturned centuries of guesswork about this most elusive and secretive of creatures. Schmidt proved that remarkably, the freshwater European and American eel (the Anguilla Anguilla and Rostrata) that most secretive of fish, migrated to the far Sargasso Sea to spawn.
The precise mechanism and exact location remains unknown to this day but what is certain is that the smallest larvae known as Leptocephali drift northeast of the Gulf Stream arriving in winter into Southern Europe. They float into Northern Europe in early summer after a journey that lasts around three years. Once in coastal waters, the larvae turn into elvers – glassy transparent creatures that migrate inland. On maturation, the eel makes its way back to the Sargasso to breed and to die.
It is an extraordinary story for a creature both renown and feared in folklore but this water-serpent that evolved more than fifty million years ago is disappearing and that in itself is a mystery within a mystery.
A dark, ponderous sky full of summer rain hangs over the back yard of Cooke’s Pie and Eel shop in Hoxton market. Surrounded and overlooked by grim, low-rise council estates, this is the buffer zone between the East End of Hackney and the unspeakable riches of the City of London.
Joe Cooke, a hearty, big man who swears more frequently than a docker, is fumbling for eels in a deep plastic tank that burbles and splashes in front of him. Expertly tipping the slithering prey into a bucket, he turns to sharpen a long, wicked knife on a rasping steel. In the bucket, a reflection of the sky. A dark, swirling mass of chaos. Six or seven eels turn over each other desperately thrashing: trying to bury themselves. A foaming sea of slime and muscular shiny flesh.
Big drops of rain spot the paving stones of the yard. The eels thrash and whip furiously. One makes it to the blood-stained chopping board and Joe’s fingers caress it. Something strange happens. The creature is soothed: massaged – almost hypnotised - calmed. It lays straight, delighting in itself, thinking of a faraway sea, almost asleep, forgetful of its fate. A mercy.
Joe’s long knife takes the off the head and expertly slits the belly removing the guts in one long slice. Globs of dark flesh and innards fleck his thick fingers.
“I’ve been doing this since I was a kid on my Dad’s stall,” says Joe, 58. ”Beautiful creatures ain’t they?”
A translucent blue-black skin like an oil slick cut into jewelled pieces spotted with rain. The sky opens and we retreat into the cosy world of pie, mash and strong dark tea.
Alison Debney from the Zoological Society of London is the project manager for The Thames Eel Monitoring project. She recounts in a rather nervous, soft voice that since 1980 there has been a decline of more than 95 per cent in the stock levels of European eels and that in 2009 the 174-member Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITIES) started to restrict the sale of eel due to the drastic fall.
“There are fewer eels now… what everyone is trying to figure out is exactly why… “. It seems that there are multiple causes. “One is the barrier to migration – so lack of habitat. We’ve drained a lot of our rivers, and we have built big flood defences on them so that eels aren’t able to access them. There are changes to ocean migratory currents; there’s also an eel parasite (Anguilla Crassicla) that seems to affect their swim bladder - the thing that they use to change their position in the water”. Pollution, levels of salination in water and global warming may also play a part.
Debney, whose project now uses ‘citizen scientists’ in the Thames to set up traps and monitor numbers twice a week, has fallen a little in love with eels.
“I don’t want to go all anthropomorphic, but the way their eyes look at you and the way they hold their own when dealing with us…is special... eels have always been underappreciated. But they are a critical part of the eco-system – the birds that everybody loves - like the Bittern or the Grebe - they feed on eels. Without that lifecycle we’d lose a huge part of the ecosystems that have been there for millions of years.”
Catholic priest Father Oliver Kennedy, 80, has for forty years run one of the only remaining commercially viable wild eel fisheries in Europe (Lough Neagh in Northern Ireland). “Things are very bad (for the eel) in Germany, Holland and France… we on the other hand are relatively safe – we buy elvers out of the Severn (River in the UK) and they take between twelve and twenty years to mature so our crisis might be delayed”.
It is clear however that unless we find a way to farm eels like salmon or clear migratory paths, the European eel may not see the end of the century.
Cooke’s is one of the last palaces of eels and pie and mash, once the staple diet of the London poor. Clean. Tidy. Respectable. Victorian. White tiled walls. Sawdust on the floor. Wooden benches. Honest food, honest people. An old Roberts radio plays Dire Straits and all is well in the world. On the wall, a clipping from the Hackney Gazette about David Beckham visiting the East End to eat his beloved jellied eels. He came here. Above the doorway to the kitchen a sign that says ‘mad house’.
Rain streaks at the windows and Joe Cooke emerges from slaughter with a blue and white striped apron now dusted with flour from the kitchen. The busy lunch service is going to start. Johnnie, a patient, rake-thin baker with home- made tattoos up his sinewy arms, carries a bucket of freshly mashed potatoes to an empty vat on the long counter by the door. Soon a procession of elderly ladies and thick-set young men with shaven heads will come trooping in demanding to be fed.
“Johnnie? Lovely fella” says Joe with obvious affection. “Very good ‘earted and loyal… be first to put the kettle on… been with me for twenty-eight years. He came from the Labour Exchange one day and he hasn’t left since…” A pregnant pause. “Well I say that – twenty eight years, on and off… in between being in prison. Brixton, The ‘Scrubs… He’s been in every fucking nick in London”.
John shyly smiles and carries on. Tradition.
Eels have long been a staple part of London food and were synonymous with the city and its people. In King Lear, Shakespeare’s Fool in his ramblings to the King, witters – “Cry to it, nuncle, as the Cockney did to the eels when she put 'em i' the paste alive; she knapped 'em o' the coxcombs with a stick, and cried 'Down, wantons, down!'”
In a city dominated and bisected by the River Thames the eel’s popularity was that it was plentiful, cheap and when most meat or fish had to be preserved in salt, eel could be kept alive in puddles of water. The Victorian curate Reverend David Badham reports in his ‘Prose Halieutics; Or Ancient and modern fish tattle’ published in 1854 that
“London steams and teems with eels alive and stewed. For one halfpenny a man of the million may fill his stomach with six or seven long pieces and wash them down with a sip of the glutinous liquid they are stewed in.”
Undoubtedly eaten by Roman occupiers in Londinium it was spatch-cocked (a grilling technique that sliced the eel length ways) by the Anglo-Saxons. The humble eels’ indulgent, meaty flesh was sought all along the river and traditionally caught by line or by eel-bucks – wicker or willow baskets tapered at one end thrown across the Thames in a line in great numbers. The bucks were so prevalent and a nuisance to river traffic that they were banned by the terms of the Magna Carta of 1215 – not that anyone took any notice, and the practice continued until the early twentieth century.
Such was the demand that eels were brought over from The Netherlands in great quantities by Dutch eel schuyts and these were commended for helping feed London during the Great Fire in 1666. Although these were seen as inferior to domestic eels, the British government rewarded the Dutch for their charity by Act of Parliament in 1699 granting them exclusive rights to sell eels from their barges on the Thames.
During the nineteenth century however, the Thames became increasingly polluted so that it could no longer sustain significant eel populations and the Dutch ships had to stop further upstream to prevent their cargo being spoiled.
As Tom Fort in his wonderful The Book of Eels reports: “For centuries the start of the annual elver run, or eel-fare has been the signal for Londoners to roll up their trouser legs and wade forth with … nets and buckets.” But by 1878 British Freshwater Fishes reported that “… the eel-fare… no longer exists, on account of the filthy water around London”.
In 1890 Charles Dickens eldest son, (also Charles) was writing in his Dictionary of the Thames that “eels have greatly fallen off in individual size and collective number in late years”. Andrew White Tuer in his Old street cries of London (1885) recounts much older calls of eel sellers and piemen selling eel, meat and fruit pies often of very dubious hygiene. Rotten fish mixed with fresh.
Pies were excellent street food – hot and filling and transportable. They were perfect food for the emerging urban working classes. They could be eaten standing up or at pie stalls. It was said that some six hundred pie-men plied their trade in London. According to the aptly named Francis Grose in his 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue they had discernable cries, hand bells and songs. It is that evolution of cries and identity of the costermonger – a generic term for a street seller (notorious for “low habits, general improvidence, love of gambling, total want of education, disregard for lawful marriage ceremonies, and their use of a peculiar slang language” The Slang Dictionary, 1859) that fed directly into the emerging Cockney culture as we know it today. The city however was changing and ideas of respectability allegedly permeated through much of Victorian London. People wanted to ape their social betters and ‘move up’. Life on the streets for a section of the working classes gave way to rooted shops, cafes – even restaurants.
The first recorded eel and mash shop was Henry Blanchard’s at 101 Union Street in Southwark in 1844. The shop sold meat and eel pies with cheap and filling mashed potato. By 1874, there were thirty-three eel and mash shops in operation.
“Truthfully, I’ve never tried a jellied eel – I can’t bring myself to try them… I’m not a lover of cold things in jelly.”
Graham Poole is relaxed. A steady, Saturday stream of customers are coming through the door of M Manze’s Eel and Pie House in Peckham, South London. He is one of three brothers that run the authentic, remaining Manze shops. Over several cups of tea, he recounts the tale of the two great aristocratic families of pie and mash – the Cooke’s and the Manze’s.
People share wooden benches and a mirror reflects a yellowing, slow grinding ceiling fan and a spy camera. Two young girls in skinny jeans with peroxide hair loudly plan their Saturday evening over a midday plate of pie and mash. A sign above the counter reads, “Will gentlemen please ensure that they are wearing at least a t-shirt when entering the shop”. Outside, large African women sway their colourful batik-covered hips past stalls selling yams and cassava. A thunderous bassline is being pounded out down the street by a band from the Grace Outreach Evangelical Church (Old Kent Road branch) outside the local shopping centre. People dance. Opposite, the new Peckham library sits incongruously like a colourful child’s Lego brick amid the Victorian shop fronts. London has changed again.
Settling into his chair Graham, a natural storyteller, begins.
“Michael Manze was a peasant from Ravello in Italy and the family came over to Bermondsey in 1878. Apparently they walked to the port they were so poor. According to the records he opened a shop … an ice merchant and confectioners… next door to Robert Cooke’s on Tower Bridge Road, which was already an eel and pie shop.
“Michael fell in love with Ada, Cooke’s daughter, and they took over the Tower Bridge Road pie shop although he didn’t put his name over the door until 1902. Whether Robert gave it to him as a dowry we really don’t know. He had lots of relations and they all opened shops. There were fourteen of them across London. Bear in mind he came over shoeless and when he died at fifty-six he had this huge mansion in Kent with servants, gardeners, chauffeurs and a couple of the Italian versions of Italian Rolls Royces – Isotta Fraschinis…He used to hold court there. People used to come to petition him. There’d be fights to work for a shilling a day in the shops. In Tower Bridge Road there were staff quarters and there was another house in Bermondsey”. All this from the eel.
“I think the war saw the end of it. They changed the name from Mansi to Manze as it sounded less Italian – there was apparently a lot of hatred…
He’d lost interest after that and he gave away the shops to all the kids. My aunt and father grew up in the mansion and they eventually sold it to developers for flats. The family went their separate ways. A lot of the kids had sold the name of the businesses but I think we are the only family Manze’s left”.
With a sigh, Graham concedes that, “The people round here now aren’t traditional English… There are quite a few trendier middle class people coming in and trying the food. They tend to get up later in the day”. He smiles – “we rarely sell a vegetarian pie before midday”. Indeed, Manze’s haven’t butchered and cooked their own eels for a couple of decades. Certainly since the shop was burnt out in 1985 during the local race riots. “It’s too much farting about… we get them from Mick’s Eels in Billingsgate” (London’s enormous fish market).
Eels are increasingly expensive but a mail order business keeps Manze’s busy. “We get emails at all times of night – after people have had a few drinks… old East Enders that have moved out, reminisce - they want their eels and pies”. They want their memories.
Lisa, serving behind the Peckham shop counter, tells me that they probably “only sell 8-10 portions of eels” (either stewed or jellied) here a day. “Most people come in for pie and mash and that’s it… it’s the ‘oldies’ that have it.”
The eel and pie shops are like a beacon to a romantic and (relatively) unchanged white working class culture whose thread passes unseen through generations that have worn the pavements outside Manze’s smooth.
The eating of eels is as slippery and elusive as a definition of modern working class identity. Wave after wave of immigration, especially since the 1950s, has changed the face of inner city Britain and especially London. It means that perhaps for the first time, inner city working class identity – the Cockney identity - is a genuine racial melting pot. ‘Cockney’ has both geographic and linguistic associations. The idea of Cockney is about working class Londoners (those born within the sounds of Bow Bells) but also to a colloquial form of speech. Plenty of young Asians and West Indians would call themselves Cockney now. So too would white working class communities stuck between the ideals of the 1980s’ Thatcherite generation that bought their own council houses (or fled to the suburbs) and a desperately poor underclass demonised as violent, feral and workshy criminals in the popular press. It is for both of these groups that eel eating is emblematic of what they were and also who they are now. It is no coincidence that Millwall football fans – a byword for violence in the 1970s and 1980s - still taunt the opposition supporters with:
“Let ‘em come, let ‘em come … We’ve had our jellied eels and our glass of beer…”
In wider society, eating jellied eels and pies has a comedic value (but then the British always either laughed at or scorned its poor - except when it sent them off to die in the mud or Flanders or elsewhere) and a resonance with the ‘jolly’ Pearly Kings and Queens. Nowadays seen as quaint costumed charity workers, they were originally leading and respected costermongers that would settle often violent street disputes between gangs. A cartoon representation of poverty and tradition.
Ironically, it is usually immigrants who end up working in the London catering trade. Jews in late Nineteenth century London evolved from selling salt beef and pickled herring out of barrels to opening restaurants. The Maltese and Italians were largely responsible for the café culture that still persists in Soho as the first nod to an English Petit-Bourgeoisie identity. Today, Turks run most of the ‘greasy-spoon ‘cafes serving everything from decidedly non-Halal bacon sandwiches to burgers.
“Actually I feel more Italian now more than I ever did,” says Graham wistfully. “We were walking round a market in Florence and we went past a shop and it was our Tower Bridge road shop to a spit. They weren’t selling pies but Italian food - but it had the marble tables, the benches the mirrors, the sawdust – just the same”.
“I don’t speak Italian but I love to hear it – I think Italy has everything – the food, the weather - the traditions. It’s in my blood like a romance. But I’m always here…” he says looking lovingly around the Peckham shop. “It’s my life – I’ve never known anything else – it’s as natural as breathing. When I come in of a morning there’s a bit of a gloom when I drive in through Peckham. I park up and walk through the streets with my head down and I come in here and I brighten up. It’s comfortable - like a big leather armchair.”
A mash of sorts you could call it. To accompany your multi-ethnic eels… Or as Joe Cooke would have it on the other side of the Thames, nodding to the young black man setting into his pie: “You can’t anymore say that it’s only white people that come in – we get ‘em all – we have your Muslims, your Sikhs, your Hindus, the lot. Some are strict and they have the vegetarian pies – but most just have the meat ones… our customers reflect the changing East End… it’s difficult to define but the thing that has changed is that our type of East Ender is definitely in the minority – the whites – whether they’d have been English, Irish, Jewish, Italian – that’s changed. The East End – it’s an attitude to life isn’t it? The East End is a living, moving, breathing, stretchy culture”.
It is however impossible to ignore the decline in eel and pie shops. From their mid-century ubiquity probably less than twenty or so remain within central London.
As Joe Cooke reminisces, “…the thing is you can go back to when all the shops were roaring (with trade). Fucking ridiculous busy. Friday and Saturday evening we used to shut at six o’clock. When we used to live at the Broadway (now the Eel and pie shop of his brother Robert Cooke) we’d go upstairs, have a bit of tea and grub - whatever. We’d come down about half past seven, the ovens were still on, and we’d have the pots on full of spuds. It’d get to maybe quarter to eight and the people would be queuing up outside for eight-thirty and if we were a little bit late, they’d be banging on the doors ‘Open up, come on…’ and they all got bowls and pots and pans to put their food in…It got less busy when all your Kentucky Fred Chicken things opened, then you had your McDonalds. As soon as your burger places opened then we saw the difference. Years ago, when I was a kid in a market area you’d have had a pie shop, a bakers and a café. That was it. McDonalds now sell a McFucking this and a McFucking that – they do everything. Whatever we do, we stay absolutely true. We do it exactly the same. We are unique and I wouldn’t want it any other way.”
What Cooke is describing is what the New Economics Foundation calls ‘clone town Britain’ where every High Street has the same shops. In the whole of the UK now there are less 1000 independent fishmongers; less than 4000 greengrocers. The number of specialist shops has fallen by 90% since the 1950s. As Jane Jacobs argued in the Death and Life of Great American Cities (1960) communities are “created by myriad small daily encounters… the sum of such casual, public contact at local level is a feeling for the public identity… a web of public respect and trust”. It was that trust that made people flock to eel and pie shops in the late Nineteenth century because they knew that the food was ‘clean’ and somehow honest. It is what drives a more allegedly ‘sophisticated’ palate away today.
“I used to eat them in jelly then I realised they done them hot (sic) and I prefer them like that.”
Sam, 32, serves behind the counter of Manze’s in Peckham. A local woman, she has lived here all her life. Tiny in her green apron she stares at the plate of steaming eels covered in liquor (traditional parsley sauce) in front of her.
“I stopped eating them when my kids came along. They won’t touch ‘em – they think the liquor‘s bogey’s – but I’m trying”. With that she slurps on a piece of eel liberally covered in sauce. “You gotta be careful though – we had a ‘choker’ in here once – this lady come up to the counter and asked for a glass of water and she had an eel bone stuck in her throat. We had to call an ambulance – but she came back and said ‘thank you’ when she came out of hospital! That’s why we take your money when you come in before you sit down”… she says playing to the audience at the counter that responds with enthusiastic giggles.
Sharon and Raymond Shilling, both in their sixties, no longer live in London but come to the Manze’s on Tower Bridge Road once in a while to reminisce. They are part of the ‘respectable’ working class that moved out – to places like Essex or the Home Counties. “We miss it of course – but we don’t miss the area – it’s all changed” says Raymond. Sharon hates pastry so just eats the eels and her husband can’t stand eels so just has the pies. Jack Sprat and his wife… She runs her fingers over the original Victorian green and white tiles lovingly. “Our kids like the pies but they won’t touch the eels though…”
“That’s the thing - people just won’t try them anymore…”
Paul Simpson, a likeable East London boy with an open face, stands inside his East End landmark – Tubby Isaacs’ World Famous Jellied Eel Stall - and strains to make himself above the roar of the traffic thundering down the Whitechapel Road. This area used to be London’s great Jewish ghetto.
“Jellied eels aren’t Kosher but there’s different degrees to it – originally it was just cheap food – like oysters. Tubby was a Jew and he sold to anyone…Goys (gentiles) and other Jews ate them: it was only the Frommers (the Orthodox) that never… it was just good, cheap nosh”. Not any more however. Eels because of their increased scarcity are becoming very expensive. “We’re paying a fortune for them at the moment” says Paul “You’re looking about £10 a kilo I suppose – you need 2.5 kilos for a bowl and that’s without the cost of guys killing them, cutting them up, the labour, the wages”.
“The stall first opened in 1919 - my Dad, Ted, had the business before me and he got it from his Uncle Solly who took over from Tubby. Tubby ran off to the ‘States in 1939 when he thought war was coming – apparently to avoid the Call Up – but then they ended up getting enlisted over there instead!”
Paul worked here through the ‘Seventies - he was what the trade calls ‘a floater’ - a boy collecting the plates, refilling the vinegar bottles.
“The thing about eels is how they’re presented. People queue up for sushi don’t they? I think it’s the jelly that puts them off – see, in the old days, people would boil their eels, eat them and what was left over would form the jelly. Before ‘fridges you could keep them like that for a couple of days”.
The small bowl in front of me is an inch deep with cold eel bits in a quivering transparent jelly. Paul serves his speciality (“eight bits for £4… a bowl, eighteen portions, £35”) with a dash of chilli vinegar and a small piece of bread. The initial shock of the jelly: cold, damp, wobbly is replaced by the firm, meaty flesh of the eel. The bone is hard; sharp in the mouth. It bisects the thick portion and immediately you want to suck. The flesh comes away easily: the jibe that everything unusual tastes like chicken is revealed as a lie. The eel is fishy but not overly so. I’m reminded of salmon – sticky, slightly oily. I roll the bone triumphantly around my mouth and immediately want more. Pie and eel shops have sawdust on the floor for just my response. I want to spit the bone cockily away but resist the temptation to dirty the filthy, flyblown East London streets with any more mess.
“It’s the right season now interrupts Joe Cooke – we’re getting the lovely Irish eels. You can really notice the difference.” I’m back in Hoxton in front of another bowl of eels. “They cook so quickly you have to be careful. Not like the New Zealand ones – their skin’s different – as tough as a donkey’s foreskin”.
I watched these eels alive a few days ago and I’m slightly hesitant. These are slightly sweeter if anything, more silken. The skin’s lighter; silvery in the grey afternoon light. And then the mash – rougher than I imagined. No butter, no salt – just mashed, floury potatoes. Plain. Simple.
The pie, the cornerstone of the meal is less solid, more delicate than it looks. The recipe for this and the liquor (parsley sauce) are however a closely guarded secret differing ever so slightly between eel, pie and mash shops.
I keep the pie upright, it’s golden, slightly burnt top towards me and as I poke at it with a spoon, it opens easily. Flaky and rich. For the Englishman, the pie is significant. Solid and hearty, only roast beef could be more traditional. A symbol of gasto-nationalism supposedly signifying a robust and cheerful nation it defies complicated ‘foreign’ food with a solid disdain.
For the mediaeval cook, the lack of an oven meant that an open fire could delicately cook a filling surrounded by a protective pastry case. The top of the Cooke’s pie is a ‘hot water crust’ and this is a direct descendent of that method. Originally, pastry, known as ‘huff paste’ was moulded into a case called a ‘coffyn’ (coffin or coffer). The rich discarded this flabby packaging for the meat inside which left the discarded pastry for the servants. During the sixteenth to eighteen centuries, the phrase ‘eating humble pie’ (still very much in use) referred to pies made from ‘umble’ cooked with offcuts of the meat for the master of the house.
Cooke’s pie opens easily. A puff of steam clears to show a thin layer of meat below. Dark and sticky, the filling is unusually good. Quality beef, minced. No onion or discernable seasoning sits on a base of pastry that is clearly different to it’s lid. The base is softer, indulgent, welcoming. It’s made with suet. The pie bleeds a clear juice not a gravy and the whole ensemble exudes a warmth of home cooking not a mass production. Old pie-hands around me smother their pies and mash in vinegar adding a sharp tang that this plain food welcomes.
Kim, Joe’s wife sits with me. “One dollop of mash with a wooden spoon: it’s all about standing your mash up on the side of the plate to look nice. Tradition here is 150 years old … you could dish up the mash with an ice-cream scoop but that wouldn’t be the way that it’s always been done. Who would ever think that pie and eels would go; who would ever think that liquor, this green sauce, would go on a pie. But it worked: it’s always worked!”
She continues, “When I married Joe at 18, I married into the family. I was petrified of Joe’s mother – a very formidable woman who was taught by Joe’s grandmother – the matriarch of all of us. She couldn’t give a shit who she upset. She set standards, which is why we don’t have Formica tables, we don’t have coffee machines. When I make pies - Joe’s taught me how to make pies: when I cut up eels - Joe has taught me to cut up eels. It’s my way or no way. We hold the pie in a certain way: the liquor goes on top of the pie and floods the plate. That’s how we do it”.
Kim, who is halfway through an MA in Medical Ethics (“Joe called me stupid. Once. Then I started studying…”), saw the shop through the BSE crisis and will see it through all eventualities – “I think I’ll die with this pie shop…”. As if on cue, a young man with a trendy haircut – part of the gentrification of this part of London - makes the mistake of asking for a knife. “Fuck off! Who put you up to that?” booms Joe from the side, laughing. The man sheepishly retreats; Robert Cooke, Joe’s brother in the Broadway shop maintains that pies are eaten with spoons and forks only – although whether this was historically to stop people stabbing each other or because people at the time of the First World War, a time of steel shortage, kept stealing them - is a secret only he knows.
Whether you have your pie upside down or covered in vinegar, whether you have your eels separate or on the side are pie shop lore and intricacies that have to be negotiated.
“To be honest the shop’s a bit of theatre – it’s like a performance: I’m like the ringmaster” says Joe with his telling smile.
Of course, what is interesting about a new, young middle class discovering eels and pie in an ironic way is that it fits perfectly into the contemporary idea of what has been called “nose to tail” eating - the rediscovery of the rustic. These days every London restaurant wants to serve you tripe or trotters. No meal is complete without an obscure animal part but in a London restaurant if you want eel it usually has to be Japanese (Unagi). There’s very little eel on offer and nobody – so far – has been brave enough to redefine the jellied eel…
If you rise early enough and make your way downstream from Tower Bridge on the Thames path, you might meet Ernie ‘the eel’. A rare and elusive East End creature and a member of a small secretive tribe of Cockney eel catchers, that still fishes for them in central London. An ironically rotund figure for an eel lover, ‘Ernie’ (a nom de guerre), 72, is retired on a small pension. Even this far upstream he can catch, “on a good day”, somewhere between fifteen to thirty pounds of eels – if he ‘puts the hours in’. He uses two rods now as an earlier brush with the law over fyke nets landed him in very hot water. Like a fat garden gnome bent over his lines he bemoans, but secretly loves, the challenge of the eel. “It’s more difficult when it’s been raining – the flood gates open and the river’s full of the city’s waste”. Too windy and the eels won’t bite for some reason. “Still I enjoy meself – I’ve got me license - I’m free”. The only problem apparently are the tourists and here ‘Ernie’ is as prickly as his prey – ‘“What are you doing?” They always ask – “what the bloody hell do they think I’m doing…?”.
His net has quite a lot of eels even for a man of his size to jelly and eat -
but of course he only eats what he catches – “that’s all the license allows me to do…” he says with a very wry smile. He’d never dream of selling them on...
How long Ernie and his Cockney friends can continue to eat this most spirited and elusive of fish however depends on their restless, unseen migration being restored to its natural mystery.
©Stuart Freedman 2011