A Slippery Severn Treat
Elvers — tiny baby eels — are a hyperlocal, hyperseasonal arrival in the spring in Gloucestershire
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”.
Elvers have been fished in Gloucestershire and on the rivers off the Bristol Channel for at the very least hundreds of years and, unusually, they have been eaten; they are so local, and so seasonal that they have never been regularly eaten anywhere else in the UK. (In the Basque region, angulas are so popular, and similarly endangered, that an extruded fish-paste substitute, gula, has been invented. Since elvers barely taste of anything, this seems an ideal solution.) The elvers come in the wake of the Severn Bore, a large tidal shockwave which is at its largest in the spring (the season has just ended), and they prefer to come at night. People who grew up on the Severn remember being sold elvers by the pint and in Gloucestershire they are only eaten one way: fried in bacon fat, with an egg scrambled in. In themselves they don’t have much flavour — very mildly fishy and slightly eggy-tasting.
My father was taken elvering as a teenager, in the 1970s, and says it was a great treat: it felt like poaching, even if it wasn’t, because it had to be done in the dark, and because there was the prospect of making big money (elvers were selling then for £20 a pound), it felt like gambling. There was a lot of tension. The Bore, he said, was due that night at 10pm, but the elverers got there hours earlier in order to stake out their “tump” — a good firm spot on the otherwise muddy, silty riverbank. They waited for hours — men spaced out at their tumps — until they heard the call go up in the distance: “Bore-ho.” After the bore passes, if the tide and weather and the moon and the mood of the eels and the spot you have picked are all good, the elvers swim determinedly onward en masse and you scoop them out of the water with a dip net, by hand. In the UK, dip nets are the only legal way of catching elvers.
Today it is hard to justify eating elvers. About half of those caught in the Severn are sold to fish farms, and half are flown to restock other European rivers or taken to inland waters they would otherwise have trouble reaching. It’s now illegal to export live eels outside the EU so the days of the truly astronomical elver-prices paid by Japanese fish farmers (up to £200 a kilo) are over — they get their seed stock from China and from American elver-fishers in Maine.
But if you happen to be given, as I was in May, a small portion of elvers from the bottom of a Gloucestershire freezer, you have several culinary directions you can go in. Once they were defrosted I impulsively popped one in my mouth — crunchy, slippery, savoury; I thought it was delicious. Then I read online that eel blood is extremely poisonous, and freshwater fish can’t be eaten raw due to nematodes (tiny parasitic worms). So I can’t recommend an elver sashimi. I cooked four different elver recipes, using about a tablespoon for each one, and ate them with my family. First, tossed in seasoned flour, fried and served with parsley and a squeeze of lemon — a Gordon Ramsay recipe. These were spicy and crunchy but any elverishness seemed lost. Then a la Vizcaina, Basque-style: hot olive oil, sliced garlic and dried chilli, elvers thrown in and the heat turned off, then eaten with bread. Third, steamed on a very low heat in the microwave with sake (you could use white wine) and some slivers of the green part of a spring onion — these had the cleanest elver flavour, such as it is (which isn’t much). And finally Gloucester-style, a fishy carbonara (Jane Grigson gives a recipe in English Food) — the way my father remembered eating them.