Mention eels to anyone in Northern Ireland and more than likely they will make a grimace and say they would never eat them.
Their snake like appearance tends to put people off trying them which is sad because they are a fabulous, local fish. Most of this silvery hued delicacy is exported to London, Amsterdam and Switzerland where it’s a mainstay on the menus of the best restaurants. Ironically it’s rare to see it on menus here but that’s something that the Lough Neagh Partnership are putting to rights. Starting from 25th June many restaurants here have signed up to their Eel-Eat campaign to put this sublime ingredient at the forefront of their food offering.
When visitors come here they want to try food that’s indigenous and a traditional eel supper embodies that. Thumb length pieces of eel are lightly dusted in seasoned flour and cooked gently in a pan for about 40 minutes. I was cooking eel at an event on the Lough shore last year and a wise woman from the Lough shore told me to treat an eel like it has eight sides - sound advice underlining the importance of turning this delicate fish often in order to cook evenly. Serve with warm buttered soda farl and fried onions for a traditional feast.
Eel emits a lot of oil which people in the know say is brilliant for rubbing into sore joints, although the resulting smell mightn’t make you the most popular! On that note it’s best to cook eel outside to ensure you don’t have a lingering smell inside. In Italy they cook the eel like this, remove the oil, add a chopped shallot, a good splash of white wine, a tablespoon of raisins and simmer for five minutes. It’s then finished with lots of flat leaf parsley and a few toasted pine nuts. The result is delicious and I’ve done something similar with dry cider in place of the wine and chopped cooking apple instead of the raisins. It’s then finished with chopped soup celery - Italian idea, local ingredients.
While fresh eel should be cooked on the bone, smoked eel fillets are a more user friendly way of using them. They require no cooking and a little goes a long way.
The Eel-Eat initiative runs alongside the start of the Comber Early potato season. Both are PGI (place of geographic interest) protected products alongside the Armagh Bramley Apple. My first recipe uses all three products in a crispy cake of Comber potatoes with smoked eel served with an apple dip. Three iconic ingredients coming together.
My other recipe is for hot grilled bread spread with apple butter, pickled red onions and radishes. Soft smoked eel with zingy onions and peppery radish. If you manage to get radishes with their fresh leaves included, all the better.
You can check out www.eel-eat.co.uk to find out what restaurants are serving eel so you don’t have to cook it to enjoy. The whole campaign finishes up on the 2nd of July with a festival at Antrim Castle Gardens. I’m running a pop up cookery school there and there are activities for all the family. Rivertolough.co.uk for all the details.