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Eel appeal

Sean Horton, the director of Pie Works, which runs Goddards in King William Walk, reveals the fascinating journey of the eel – from near the Bahamas to the Thames and eventually onto the plates of many east Londoners

The humble European eel is hardly a headliner in the hugely varied world of fish – but this unprepossessing creature (Anguilla Anguilla to give it its latin name) has one of the most remarkable life cycles in the whole fishy family.

Although they are widespread, from Iceland to the coast of North Africa, for centuries the eel’s life cycle was a mystery because fishermen never caught anything that looked like a young eel.

In the UK they can be found everywhere from rivers to reservoirs and can reach a length of five feet – but they are normally less than half that.

But here is the interesting part: eels are the only European fish to leave the coast to spawn in the sea. Male eels spend anywhere between seven and 20 years and females between nine and 50 years in freshwater before returning to the sea. When the time comes to spawn, eels turn silver and begin their fantastic journey.

Spawning has never been observed, but is believed to take place in the Sargasso Sea in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean between the Bahamas and Bermuda. The Sargasso (the only sea without a shore) is distinctive for its deep blue colour and great clarity and, fittingly, is often used as a motif for a place of mystery.

Once fertilised, the eggs develop into larvae, which are carried towards Europe in a 300-day journey on the ocean’s currents. When the larvae reach the continental shelf they change into glass eels.

During the spring, the glass eels enter estuaries and start migrating upstream while metamorphosing into elvers. These young eels are brownish-yellow on their sides and belly. After between five and 20 years the eels change colour to silver and become sexually mature.

Eels have been an important source of food for centuries. Eels were a cheap, nutritious and readily available food source for Londoners and were once so common in the Thames that nets were set as far upriver as central London.

These eels were used in the East End delicacies jellied eels and pie, and mash and eel liquor, which became so popular that dozens of eel pie and mash houses opened in London from the 18th century onwards.

Although jellied eels are not as popular as they were, there are still places where you can sample the authentic dish. And Goddards at Greenwich is keeping up that tradition.

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