The Englishman and the Eel
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.
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