eels and elvers in Spain
A guide to food in Spain
Nabbed from Buber’s Basque Page. From the NewYork Times.
For the eel, it’s a long, long way to Spain and plate By Penelope Casas
Angulas – baby eels – have been compared to short spaghetti strands with eyes, among other far less appetizing descriptions. But to Spaniards angulas, also called elvers, are a great delicacy, even worth the $165 a pound they command.
Eels became popular in Spain at the turn of the century when the Basques, always at the forefront of Spanish cooking, made angulas part of their cuisine and elevated them to culinary stardom. The word angula was in fact invented by the Basques and entered the Castilian language about a century ago as a means to distinguish baby eels from adult eels, or anguilas. The Basques, fine businessmen that they are, surely knew that the authentic Basque word for elver, txitxardin (literally worm), would not be an asset in their quest to popularize angulas.
Today Basques still love angulas; as the Spanish food authority and cookbook author Ana Maria Calera puts it, “The Basques brave and daring, and by prodigious effort, have converted these somewhat repugnant little creatures into manna from heaven.”
Accustomed to living by their wits in a ragged land, Basque people are used to confronting such culinary impossibilities in grand style. Basques transform salt cod, for instance, into an array of delicious and complex dishes that require especial dexterity to succeed. But angulas are uniquely challenging: capturing them can still be an uncommon hardship; making them edible – much less sublime – requires exceptional restrain. The flavor of angulas is so subtle it is sometimes difficult to identify as fish, and the taste can be lost altogether if angulas are combined with unsuitable ingredients. Cooking must be minimal; angulas are so thin that they easily become shriveled and tasteless.
Simplicity is the rule when preparing angulas, and the traditional Basque cooking style, which takes the name of the city of Bilbao, is followed all over Spain. Making angulas a la Bilbaina takes only a minute or two. Olive oil is heated with sliced garlic and a piece of dried red chilly pepper in an individual earthenware casserole until the garlic turns golden. Without a moment’s delay the angulas are plunged into the oil and the dish immediately removed from the heat. It is covered with a plate and brought sizzling to the table. Restaurants provide special angulas forks made of wood to avoid the metallic tasted of conventional forks and get a better grip on the smooth-skinned angulas.
Freshwater eels of the family Anguillidae, or “true” eels (as opposed to marine eels), have been the subject of legends since earliest times. The Greeks were perplexed by the reproduction of eels; females were never seen with eggs, so it was surmised that elvers were created by spontaneous generation. The explanation for the mysterious procreation of the eel, uncovered in 1922 by a Danish scientist, Johannes Schmidt, only helped to fuel the mystique of the angula.
Female eels grow to adulthood in fresh water and when sexually mature (about 7 years old) leave their habitat, meet the males at the mouths of the rivers and mate. The females from Europe then embark on an amazing journey of over 4000 miles across the Atlantic to the Sargasso Sea, a seaweed covered body of water between Bermuda and Puerto Rico, which is roughly the site of the infamous Bermuda Triangle.
The reasons for this extraordinary odyssey are unknown, but hypotheses abound. Instinct is of course as major factor; eels appeared on earth in very early prehistoric times, when perhaps the continents were much closer together, if one subscribes to the theory of continental drift. Others speculate that the Sargasso Sea was the site of the mythical continent of Atlantis before it disappeared under the ocean waters; it is said that the Gulf Stream which the eels follow on their migrations once circulated around that lost body of land.
After a five-month trip, the European eels arrive in the Sargasso Sea in late March or Early April. There they mingle with their American counterparts that have made a similar but significantly shorter voyage from the eastern Atlantic seaboard. In these stagnant waters the eels deposit immense numbers of eggs and then die, leaving their tiny transparent larvae to fend for themselves. Measuring just a quarter of an inch, the newborn undertake the long journey to their homelands. Offspring of American eels head west (since the trip is shorter, the elvers are much smaller when they arrive – far too small for eating purposes). Those of European parentage, floating, near the surface and carried by the Gulf Stream, travel east and take a full three years to reach the continent. Minus the millions consumed by predators, they reach their destination in summer. In all that time, they have grown to only three inches and remain colorless and transparent.
The new arrivals congregate at the mouths of rivers along the Atlantic and Mediterranean shores, feeding, growing, acquiring some pigmentation and climatizing themselves to fresh water. It is at this stage that they are transformed into elvers and begin to resemble miniature eels. In late fall triggered, it is thought, by such factors as the new moon, high winds and heavy rains, female elvers move upstream, fighting strong river currents and once more leaving the males behind in the tidewaters.
At this early stage of their lives, elvers can wriggle over rocks and along river banks living for extended periods out of water. They will remain in the river for seven years, until instinctively they know it is time to make their second journey to the Sargasso Sea and complete their live cycle.
Many elvers, however, never reach the rivers, for when the angulas begin to move, so do angula fishermen or anguleros. Traditionally they wade the river estuaries, scooping the elvers into large rectangular metal sieves attached to long handles.
It is a painstaking task; angulas are captured from late October to February when weather is at its worst, and anguleros fish on moonless nights (elvers only travel by night) often wading through chilly water with lanterns to attract their attention. Because of the angula’s ability to breathe out of water fishermen kill the angulas by plunging them into water that has been deoxygenated with an infusion of tobacco. The angulas are washed, parboiled in salted water (turning them opaque) and taken to the marked.
Elvers from the Deva and Oria rivers in the Basque province of Guipuzcoa have long been considered the best because of their unusual succulence and firm textu re. Along the banks of the Oria river you can see the wooden ladders used by anguleros to lower themselves into the river or small boats. The angulas from this river brought fame to the town of Aguinaga that sits at its mouth, and when Spaniards speak about Angulas de Aguinaga they are referring to angulas of the finest quality.
Today angulas are also captured in large nets, but Aguinaga remains a center for packaging and distribution and a place for fresh water nurseries (viveros), where angulas will continue their development for 10 to 12 days. During this time their spines darken, producing angulas de lomo negro, which many conoisseurs consider the choicest.
Angulas are now available frozen (they do , in fact, freeze surprisingly well), but you will never find these angulas in any self-respecting Basque restaurant. Purist consider them pastier, fishier and less silky in texture than angulas freshly caught. And undoubtedly the anticipation of the fall’s first angulas is psychologically an integral part of their pleasure.
Recently some Spanish restaurants seeking creative uses for traditional ingredients have subjected angulas to a host of indignities. Most chefs agree, however, that the classic preparation “a la Bilbaina” is still the best; once other ingredients are added, the taste of angulas can easily be overpowered and the angulas run the risk of becoming little more than a high-priced garnish. Some top chefs, like Juan Mari Arzak of the internationally acclaimed Arzak restaurant in San Sebastian, do admit a few simple variations. His angulas salad, for example, made with olive oil, shallots and a touch of Truffle-scented vinegar, is extraordinarily good. So too his angulas on toast coated with a light bechamel sauce and run under the broiler. Pedro Subijana from Akelarre, another well-known San Sebastian restaurant, takes a few more liberties, serving a salad of angulas with pickled hot green pepper encircled by warm homemade pasta.
Because the season for angulas is short and demand overwhelming, angulas sell at somewhat scandalous prices. A 100-gram portion (or three and a half ounces), typically served as a first course, cost from $35 to $45. But the price cannot dim Spaniards’ passion for angulas, be it because of their fine palates or merely as means of conspicuous conpsumption.
Fresh angulas are available in restaurants from late October through February and can be found frozen ,at similar prices, all year long in many restaurants. Prices range from $35 to $45 per 100-gram portion (just under a quarter of a pound).
In Madrid memorable angulas are served in the traditional manner at Segnorio de Bertiz, Comandante Zorita 4,telephone (91)533 27 57, and La Trainera, La Gasca 60, (91) 576 8035, and cost about $35 per portion. In the Basque country you will find exceptional angulas in San Sebastian at Arzak, Alto de Miracruz 21, (943)285593, and Akelarre, Barrio Igueldo s/n (943)21 20 52; In Bilbao at the classic Guria, Gran Via 66, (94)4410543, and at most other fine restaurants in the region. They are also served at bars and taverns for about the same prices.