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In Praise of Jellied Eels

To the uninitiated, the thought of jellied eels makes some people shudder.  As I found out eels are great and just as tasty as any other fish.  Many people love them but like Marmite, some simply have not given them a try.  Perhaps it is the thought of the jelly that turns people off or the association with images of snakes of the sea.  How wrong can people be!  As a piece of London's cultural heritage, long associated with London's East End, the eel has been held in high regard.  At a time when people were less affluent, eels provided an important source of nutrient goodness and what's more it was available locally, right out of the Thames Estuary.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Especially during the war and into the 1950s when rationing was still in place, eels became closely associated with the spirit of the blitz and the post-war reconstruction era.  To many, the image of the jellied eel is firmly anchored in London's working class, East End roots and undoubtedly has a special place in many who hark from this generation of people.  Having said this visit any shellfish stall and you will find the younger generation eating eels like their parents and grandparents before them. With increased awareness in personal health and better dietary requirements, many people are returning to fish as a staple part of their weekly diet.

 

The traditional fish stall, many of which still operate to this day outside some pubs and on street corners in London and beyond, jellied eels are seen in a small cartons and served up with vinegar and white pepper.  There are still many pie and mash shops and fish stalls throughout London and the south-east continuing to serve jellied eels, as well as other traditional fare such as winkles and cockles, and undoubtedly it is still a very quintessential part of regional life and certainly its cuisine.  

 

 

From my own viewpoint, heralding from the north of England, my first exploration of this London phenomenon was one of ignorance.  Plated up before me I decided to eat the bones in a fashion akin to the sardine.  It took a few explorations to get an appreciation of the product and perhaps the best way I've eaten it was at 7am in the morning when the eel was served up fresh but steaming hot.  Perhaps for some that's the alternative option - a nice bowl of stewed eels!

Peter Burgess

Peter eating oysters after the eels