Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Eels — Toxic Shocks and Jellified Memories

>My last post raised a few emailed eyebrows after asserting that the blood of eels is poisonous, so I thought I'd better explain how toxic it really is, and how it might affect anglers unfortunate to catch, as I did, eels mauled by the lions of the river, and spurting their blood all over the place.

Well, eel blood is established as containing a toxin that causes would be predators to drop the fish fast, because contact with its blood can cause severe and instant reactions in sensitive organs such as eyes and tongues. I have read that if you were to have eel blood on your hands and through ignorance of the fact of its aggressive properties, rub it in your eyes, then they would burn and redden, the eyelids would swell, the tear glands weep constantly, and this nasty condition would persists for several days. If you were to get it on your tongue, then it too would swell and burn, but with the added bonus of hypersalivation, which means you'd drool uncontrollably, again, for several days.

Heaven knows what would happen if you were to do both, and then, still with blood on your hands, take a quick leak in the bushes before the onset of symptoms rendered you incapacitated?!  I'd suppose you'd become something of an embarrassment to your family and friends, what with your puffy, teary eyes — swollen, salivating tongue dangling out — and a wet patch in your trousers surrounding a packet the size of a brick? 

Injected, the blood can kill in quite small amounts. Enough for the job is two drops for a rabbit, probably four for a dog and eight for a human being. I don't know exact doses for humans, and nor does anyone else, it seems, because the only experiments seem to have been performed on small and cuddly, but ultimately disposable mammals, like rodents and dogs. However, Japanese sushi chefs never serve raw eel, and the arts of sushi eel preparation so arcane and mysterious that ordinary sushi chefs will not prepare eel at all. 

I'd guess that someone died horribly at some point then...

The eels toxic blood is 'thought' (of course it is!) to be a defense mechanism, the hapless diner turned victim that survives, passing on the knowledge in their genes or through pup training to the next generations, thereby ensuring not only the survival of the eel, but their own line also. The pike that tried with my eel evidently hadn't a clue about all this academic learning, but pike are thoughtless animals and wags have reportedly fooled pike by fishing with lures made of condoms and out of dildos, both of which are very eel-like in appearance at a glance, but without the same repulsive (to pike!) aftertaste. They'll slash at anything that moves, won't they?

That eel makes a great bait and foodstuff for many predators is something of a mystery then, if alive they are such trouble to digest. Eel is the tope bait par excellence. Skippers out of Essex plying the Thames Estuary won't go armed without it. Zander like it, pike like it, we like it too. Well us Essex Boys do — though jellied, not raw. This is presumably because death causes the blood to change its properties, and certainly the case that cooking destroys the toxin completely. 

Otters are reputed to love eels. I cannot find any reason why otters should not be affected in any way by eel blood — as with everything else about the eel, its life is shrouded in impenetrable mystery. The scientists don't even know exactly what the toxin is, and I don't suppose otters much care. Otter mums do train their pups though, so perhaps there is a way to handle and safely kill and eat raw eel that otters know about, and that they pass on?

Essex mums also know all about handling eels, and as a pup I was trained to kill, skin, and cook eels by my Grandma, even though she was actually a Yorkshire lass long domiciled in my infamous county. I never once suffered from any kind of poisoning that could be attributed to eel blood, and I used to catch, kill and eat a lot of them while on my six week school holiday at Mersea Island on the Essex coast.

The eel was dispatched by decapitation — a sharp and heavy-spined knife severing the neck in the blink of an eye —was expertly slit down the belly, gutted swiftly with the spine of the knife, chopped into inch-and-a-bit pieces and thrown in a pan of cold water, but if you didn't gut them straight off, they'd still wriggle about uncontrollably, which I always thought remarkable. The heads would move about for ages though, the fins swimming back to sea and the mouth gasping. It wasn't a very bloody process — that seemed to stop just as soon as the head was clean off the body.

Skinning them was another matter, that was done with the head on and very skillfully, but for proper jellied eels, not the sanitised recipes dished up by celebrity chefs, you don't skin them because the jelly comes from the skin itself, not from tasteless added gelatin, which would be the sure sign of failure! Proper jellied eels are sea green, not sky blue...

Chopped eel, skin on, bone in.
Cover with water, add a little malt vinegar
Season with salt and white pepper, and a bit of chopped parsley if you have it. 
Boil and simmer till skin flakes, never too soon, never too late
Put in fridge to set overnight.
Stir and serve cold in small bowls next morning, with a cup of sweet milk tea to wash it down.

It's a shame that eels are supposed to be so rare nowadays, though you'd never know it given the quantities now caught in our rivers, with reports coming in all the time of the slimy buggers snapping up barbel baits. It's been a bit of a phenomena this year hasn't it? I had one from the Avon in February, and I've seen loads of blogs with eels in em' since, including mine now, but a few years ago you hardly heard of them. I'd guess that their natural recovery is in progress, and that's cause for celebration in general, but I guess something of a problem for barbel anglers! 

Well the eel comes first, and barbel anglers last in the grand scheme of things. I'm glad to see them in such numbers, toxic blood or not. You never know, a few might even populate our pits and ponds and stay put — then we might get a new British record, growing at a pound every decade, in say, 100 years time? 

Best of all though, they might just get common enough to have the protection lifted in the next few years, and then I can eat them freely once again! 

'Jellied eels, jellied eels. Wogg-a-ling about like wonky wheels. Why d'ya frown and look so sickly. Slide 'em down your throat and quickly.'



  1. Jeff,

    I never new about the poison aspect of Eels.Growing up in 'Ackney we visited the "Pie and Eel" shop in Well Street Market all the time.

    A "double,double",with maybe a bowl of stewed Eels and Liquor,loads of black pepper and vinegar.

    Smoked Eel lovely,but jellied can't stomach 'em.Watching my late Nan and maybe one of her eight sisters slurp down Jellied Eels,still resonates.No thanks ;-)

  2. Jeff
    I'm glad someone else is catching a lot of eels, on my two main waters I've had to fish with change baits to avoid the blighters.

  3. Monty, smoked eel is something I've never had. Next time I'm down in The Smoke , I should go across to Angel and visit Steve Hatt's place, and finally buy some. As for Jellied, you either love it or hate it!

    BR, they do seem to be about at the moment. Going to the Severn next weekend, zander at night. I expect to be be pestered like I was last year...