Fricot Feature | The Eel Story

Eels of Lough Neagh, Ireland

Father Oliver Kennedy was always going to be a tough act to follow. For fifty years he devoted his life to maintaining a centuries old tradition with the eels of Lough Neagh.

Pat Close doesn’t get sleepless nights worrying about the emerging problems that might threaten the eels of Lough Neagh – like disappearing eels, ageing fishers and bureaucratic conservationists.

He is a positive man and, like Father Kennedy who maintained the centuries old tradition before him for fifty years, he embraces the future with a purpose. Just like the eels, no longer a mystery, always a delicacy, especially in London where they go to make jellied eels and in Amsterdam where they go to make smoked eels.

In 2011 the Lough Neagh eel received Protected Geographical Indication status. This is an official stamp that recognises a food product’s unique place in the lives of people and place.

Every year between May and October, DHL ship boxes of live eels packed in ice from Belfast International Airport to Heathrow and Schipol, sent by the Lough Neagh Fishermen’s Co-operative Society.

It’s mid-morning and the fish shop on West-Kruiskade in the centre of Rotterdam is selling out of smoked eels. The demand these days always seems to exceed the supply. Lovers of this treat are worried.

Pat Close insists they have nothing to worry about. He sends the same message out to those who have been predicting the end of the Lough Neagh eel fishery.

‘We are in a unique situation in that we are in control. We have a commercial operation to run and the goal is to support our members and the sustainability of the fishery.’

Close was Father Kennedy’s ‘second-in-command’ for 25 years. Born in Toome, into a farming background, he gave up a good job as an advisor in the Department of Argiculture, accepting the call of the eels.

They needed help and he was ready to give it.

Like everyone in the area he knew about the crash. Two years before he joined the coop, the young eels migrating along the Gulf Stream from the Sargasso Sea off the coast of Florida didn’t turn up.

After years of between eight and fifteen million eels coming into the Bann at Coleraine every year, the number was down to 726,000. Father Kennedy couldn’t understand it. He had always managed the fishery to make sure enough mature eels returned to the Sargasso.

It was a global problem. Every estuary in Europe that attracted eels saw a decline. In response Father Kennedy knuckled down, just as he had done before when the lives of eels and fishers first came into his life.

To alleviate the problems caused by the crash, the coop started buying young eels from other fisheries. This is now an issue for Pat Close. ‘We aim to buy 5-6 million annually, cost varies on average £300,000-500,000.

‘Lough Neagh is a commercial fishery being exploited, not over exploited, and in order to maintain the intensity we need to maintain that stock, not only would that affect our business it would have an impact on the eels stock of Europe.

‘If we weren’t here the eels would be depleted, this is a finite resource and needs to be managed. We let 40% go back to the Sargasso Sea.’

The real issue, Close insists, is local. No new fishing licences have been issued for 20 years and this presents him with a conundrum. At its peak there were 200 boats licenced to go out on the lough, now there are 113. A hundred on the lough is the limit and will remain so while eel stocks are low.

Because the costs of running a boat is high, the fishing has remained with the families who have the tradition, passing from father to son. This knowledge base and the skills that go with it, Close acknowledges, are the key to the future of eel fishing on Lough Neagh.

With a turnover of £3m a year, the vast majority going into the communities around the lough, he knows the fishers and the fish must be sustained. And with the fishers getting older, Close wants to see younger people involved but fears the seasonal nature of the work and the long days are a deterent.

‘They go out after 4am, all out together, they look after each other, a couple of hours to lift the lines, grade out the young eels, back in for 7-7.30, into the coop at 8.30, and go out at midday again, to continue a couple of hours, running lines, quite a long day, and I would like to see more young people in it.’

In the Netherlands they hope so too. They know what Close knows.

‘Lough Neagh eels are unique, the flesh is perfect for smoking, which is why they are regarded as the best in Europe.’

Smoked Eels NETHERLANDS

An oily fish rich with omega 3, the Dutch eat more smoked eel than fresh eel. Dutch eel-smokers only smoke the fatter fish, because it tastes better. This is a typical dressing for smoked eel.

  • 1 small cucumber, chopped
  • 6 blades of chive, chopped
  • Half a lemon, juiced
  • 2 tablespoons basil, torn
  • 1 tablespoon soy sauce
  • 4 tablespoons olive oil
  • Salt and pepper

Jellied Eels ENGLAND

Jellied eels are an integral feature of London’s pie and mash shops, many housed in Victoriana, and despite the collapse of eel fisheries across Europe it is still possible to eat this wonderful delicacy in jellied eel shops across the English capital.

  • 1 kg eels, peeled, gutted
  • 600 ml fish stock
  • 3 onions, sliced
  • 3 bay leaves
  • 30 g sea salt, coarse
  • 5 g sea salt, crushed
  • 30 ml white wine vinegar
  • 1 lemon, juiced
  • Black peppercorns, handful
  • Carrageen, handful
  • Carrots (optional)
  • Celery (optional)
  • Herbs (optional)
  • Nutmeg, grated (optional)

Spread the eels in a bowl with the coarse sea salt, leave for ten minutes, then rinse the salt off. In a large saucepan, bring the bay leaves, eels, onions, peppercorns, salt and vinegar to the boil, turn heat to low and simmer until the eels are tender, about 30 minutes. Remove the eels, leave to cool. Reduce the remaining stock by twothirds. Strain, add carrageen and lemon juice, reduce until the seaweed has melted. Strain again and leave to cool. Cut the eels into the desired sizes, place in jars with the stock, the cooked onions and peppercorns on top. Put in fridge or a cold place to set. For a richer flavour use a fish stock and add herbs, spices and vegetables. Serve with mashed potatoes and parsley sauce.

Jegulju na Orizu MONTENEGRO roasted eels on rice

Lake fish – carp, eels, perch, pike, trout – are one of the great delicacies of Europe. The Swiss will argue that their lake cuisine is unquestionably the most diverse. The Hungarians will question that haughty assumption. And the Montenegrins will shake their heads at these notions and suggest a visit to Lake Skadar. Shared with Albania, this basin of water sits inside the mountains that separate the Adriatic coastline from the Podgorica plain. Carp dishes predominate and grilled eel is popular, but it is eel on rice that attracts diners to lake shore restaurants. This version is from Ivan Georgijev at Kormoran.

  • 1 kg eel, cut into 4 cm chunks
  • 300 g medium grain rice, parboiled
  • 200 g carrots, chopped
  • 200 g onions, chopped
  • 1 lemon, juice
  • 4 bay leaves
  • 2 garlic cloves, crushed
  • 10 g vegeta boullion powder
  • 5 g black pepper, freshly ground
  • 5 g salt
  • Olive oil, for frying and cooking
  • Water, for cooking

Dust eel pieces with salt, fry in oil in a frying pan over a high heat, two minutes each side, remove, set aside. Add a little more oil to the pan, and sauté carrots, garlic and onion, about ten minutes. Add rice, seasonings and spices, stir, reduce heat to low, adding three tablespoons of water, cover and cook for 10 minutes. Remove from heat, leave to rest. Preheat oven to 180°C. Spoon rice mixture into oiled baking tray, arrange eel chunks on top, splash each with a little oil. Bake for 30 minutes. Serve with lemon juice.

Paling in‘t Groen FLANDERS eels in green sauce

In Flanders eel is served with a green sauce made with fresh river herbs and wild leaf vegetables, one or more of a choice from chervil, sorrel, spinach, watercress and wild garlic leaves. The sauce should be aromatic and not too thick.

  • 1 kg eel, cut into 5 cm pieces
  • 1 litre fish stock
  • 300 g green herbs / vegetables, chopped small
  • 25 g butter
  • 25 g flour
  • 1 lemon, juice
  • 1 mint sprig
  • 1 parsley sprig
  • Salt, pinch
  • Black pepper, freshly ground, pinch

Poach eel in stock over a low heat for 15 minutes. Make a light roux, add 350ml of stock, bring to the boil, add greens, lemon juice and seasonings, reduce heat and cook for five minutes. For a thinner sauce use a little more stock. Coat the eel pieces with the sauce, garnish with mint and parsley. Serve with fries.