Eel-de-France

Our eight-year-old daughter turns up her nose at only a handful of foods, notably spinach, ham, clams, and Brussels sprouts, which I adore and she dismisses as “round green things.” But last night my husband and I discovered the only food that actually brings our child to tears—eels.

Eels, ready to be cleaned and skinned.

I’m not especially fond of eels either. The flavour of this sinuous sea creature is too dark for me, rich and oily, with a hint of malevolence. It’s also the sort of food I associate with medieval banquets. Perhaps I’m imagining these drawbacks. Maybe my disdain is merely a primal abhorrence, related to my fear of snakes, which is only natural for Southerner. I am told Italians, however, love eels, especially at Christmas, which is why you can find them easily in the winter in any city with a significant Italian population. A Boston-bred college friend of my husband’s recalls his grandmother keeping a bin filled with live eels in her basement during the holidays. Frankly I don’t like the look of eels. But I will taste them, even just a bite, especially when I arrive home to find my husband pondering an eel recipe out of Mapie de Toulouse-Lautrec’s La Cuisine de France (Orion Books, 1961).

He planned to serve bouilleture d’anguilles à l’angevin, or boiled eels in the Angevin style, which means, to the best of my knowledge, cooked with white white from the Loire Valley. The word Angevin relates to the Angevin empire, a Plantagenet swath that covered most of coastal France and England in the 12th and 13th centuries. (See, I told you eels had a medieval aspect.) The dish includes mushrooms too, presumably the button variety (Mme. de Toulouse-Lautrec doesn’t specify) but my husband brought back from the market the kind of attractive, broad-topped, earthy mushrooms I associate with woodlands and fairy tales.

The boiled eels made their way to the table with a side dish of green beans cooked in butter and sprinkled with sliced almonds. Our daughter, tears welling in her eyes, took one bite of the main course and asked to be excused from the table. I took two bites and then focused on eating the buttery mushrooms and green beans. My husband, however, cleared his plate, had seconds, and pronounced the eels good. There’s just no accounting for taste.

BOILED EELS À L’ANGEVIN

SOURCE: La Cuisine de France by Mapie de Toulouse-Lautrec (Orion, 1961)

3 eels (14-18 ounces each)

7 ounces (14 tablespoons) butter

1/2 pound mushrooms

2 cups dry white wine (preferably Anjou)

4/5 tablespoon heavy cream

Salt and pepper

The eels and mushrooms cooking in their broth.

Skin and clean the eels and cut them into 1-1/2-inch pieces. Throw away the heads. Put the butter in a large pan and add the eels and the raw mushrooms, trimmed and washed, left whole or cut in pieces, depending on size. Cover the pan and heat slowly for 5 to 6 minutes. Add enough wine to cover the eel pieces and put the pan on high heat until the liquid boils. Reduce the heat and simmer 10 minutes.

Remove the eel pieces to a heated serving dish with a slotted spoon. Cover to keep warm. Boil down the liquid rapidly to half its original quantity. Add the cream and beat the sauce with a fork for a few moments without letting the mixture boil. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Pour the sauce over the eels and serve immediately.

The completed dish, with its creamy sauce, ready for the table.

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