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Glass eels, also called elvers: Tradionally plentiful in Gloucestershire, now endangered (Uwe Kils GNU 1.2)

It seems unfair to eat the eel: the odds are so far stacked against it. When it arrives in this country on the spring tides in the south-west, a glass eel, or elver, a transparent needle only 5cm long, it has already spent between one and three years swimming the 3,000 miles from the Sargasso Sea where it hatched, hitching a ride on the Gulf Stream. It is easy prey for larger fish and the way to the inland rivers is often blocked by manmade flood defences. If it survives to maturity it will spend ten years feeding and growing before making almost the same journey back again — following the current of the North Atlantic Gyre — reaching sexual maturity, spawning, and dying.

The eel’s flesh is both rich and delicate and its population at one time seemed ridiculously abundant. Jellied eels and eel pie were the food of the poor in the East End; unagi donburi, freshwater eel barbecued in a salty-sweet sauce and served on rice, is a classic Japanese working-man’s lunch. There are restaurants in Japan which serve only  eel. In 1908 Sir Herbert Maxwell wrote that “the supply is in no danger of running short . . . eels [are] well-nigh inexhaustible”. Daniel Defoe ate elvers in Keynsham, near Bristol, in A Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain: “Having boiled them, they make them into small Cakes, for Sale. These Elver-Cakes they dispose of at Bath and Bristol; and when they are fried, and eaten with Butter, nothing is more delicious.” According to Izaak Walton, these elver-cakes are generally eaten by “the poorer sort of people”.

But wild stocks have dropped precipitously since the 1970s and they are now critically endangered. Researchers have, after many years, managed captive breeding on a small scale, hoping to make full-cycle eel farming feasible, but it involves an elaborate hormone regime and the larvae which hatch are finicky eaters and fail to thrive. For the time being — as throughout history — every eel you might eat was once a tiny gelatinous willow-leaf-shaped leptocephalus from somewhere near the Bermuda Triangle. Their reproduction seemed for centuries to be biologically inexplicable: no eel in fresh water has milt or eggs. Aristotle thought they were spontaneously generated: “In certain marshy pools, after the water has been completely drawn off and the mud scraped out, they reappear when there has been a shower of rain.” Izaak Walton’s explanations range from logical to poetic: some men “are certain that eels have all parts fit for generation, like other fish, but so small as not to be easily discerned, by reason of their fatness”; others say that “as pearls are made of glutinous dewdrops, which are condensed by the sun’s heat in those countries, so Eels are bred of a particular dew, falling in the months of May or June on the banks of some particular ponds or rivers”. Walton has seen a river “covered over with young Eels, about the thickness of a straw; and these Eels did lie on the top of that water, as thick as motes in the sun”, and name-checks the Severn, “where they are called Yelvers”.

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