Digby Anderson

Sniggling with a darning needle

I have always counted myself a loyal, even an enthusiastic eel fan. I seek them out and buy them whenever I can find them live: they deteriorate quickly and should be killed just before cooking. The French like to buy them skinned. This is a culinary error and usually, though not necessarily, means they are bought dead. I keep them in the bath with the cold tap just dripping. I like cutting them up holding the body with the women’s pages of the Daily Telegraph and watching the advice about alternative health disintegrating in a mess of blood and slime while the severed head watches, approvingly winking and squirming in sympathy. I like eels fried with olive oil and garlic or with ginger or jellied or matelote or stewed with parsley liquor.

Now I am not sure that I am a worthy fan at all. Beside Mr Fort I am dabbling poseur, a poor thing, a fair-weather fan. What joy, a whole book on eels. It’s a very good book, too, and a very English book, though he has much to say about foreigner eels. Mr Fort talks of catching, or more often not catching eels, with rod and line, with funnel nets, ‘sniggling’ with a darning needle, ‘stitchering’ with an old sickle, or from mud flats with the aid of a ‘mudhorse’, a sort of toboggan on mud. Eels deserve a whole book not just because they are difficult to catch and kill. (‘You have to assault the eel: go for the brute, bald-headed, armed with a newspaper, a stick and a stout knife’, says one source.) They deserve it because they are good to eat: all the best people say so, the Greeks – ‘O my sweetest, my long-awaited desire’ – the Egyptians, who put them on a par with the gods, the Romans, the French, the Neapolitans, Izaak Walton and many of our own monarchs (Henry III served 15,000 of them at one feast).

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