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The Year of Eating Dangerously
A Global Adventure in Search of Culinary Extremes
By Tom Parker Bowles
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2006 Tom Parker Bowles
All rights reserved.
It started with a pea. Nothing exotic or bloody or rancid, just your everyday, deep-frozen common garden pea. The unfortunate vegetable was being pushed from one side of the plate to the other.
'It touched the sausages, I swear. I can't eat them now. Please, get it away.'
Had this been a four-year-old child, the reaction would be understandable. But for a 34-year-old male, it was downright bizarre. I quizzed my friend further on the matter.
'I just can't bear them. Even the thought of those repellent little balls makes me ill. A sheep's eyeball is nothing in comparison.'
Here was a perfectly reasonable, intelligent human reduced to a quivering wreck by the sight of a harmless legume. The more I looked into this extreme food aversion, the more surprised I became. Another friend, Dougie, fiercely bright and fearless in the face of most foods, has a problem with bananas.
'How do I feel about bananas?' he told me, his face turning puce with rage. 'Imagine you were incarcerated in the toughest jail in America for a crime you didn't commit and ended up being serially raped by the muscle-bound prison daddy. A few years later you're walking down the street, a free man, when, suddenly, you spot the rapist standing on a corner, chatting with a bunch of mates. The trauma you'd experience at that moment, the mixture of abject terror and psychotic hatred – that's how I feel when I look at a display in a supermarket and see a banana.'
Then there are the legions of folk who won't touch liver or beetroot or swede, because they had bad experiences at school or because they don't like the texture or 'feel funny' about them.
I started to think about the relativity of dangerous foods, how one man's pea is another's tripe. The thought of eating insects in the West is, on the whole, greeted by shrieks of disgusted laughter. Yet in South East Asia, they're an entirely normal source of protein, like a chicken breast or a rasher of bacon. It's our perception of different foods, of offal or blood or unusual beasts, that's usually the biggest obstacle to trying new things, not the taste itself.
I began to widen the parameters of my search for dangerous food. All food is potentially dangerous if not treated or handled or stored properly. It rots, grows mould, degrades and poisons. The advancement of civilisation could be seen as a battle to remove the danger from what we eat, to cook, preserve, can, irradiate and freeze. In the West, the supermarkets get more powerful every year, offering their vision of tasteless perfection. And despite our food renaissance, the sale of ready meals rises steadily each year. A Big Mac and large fries is far more dangerous to your health than dog stew or snake soup. Yet it's the idea of the latter two that disgusts us, rather than the taste itself.
The more I thought about the concept of dangerous food, the more difficult I found it to get to its heart. The puffer fish or fugu contains deadly poison, so there is a chance of being killed by your lunch. Catching the baby eels, or elvers, involves a shady, nocturnal world of cash, pitched battles and the occasional shotgun. Fishing for percebas, or the goose-necked barnacle, is highly perilous, a few men against the might of the Atlantic. Super hot sauces burn, raw tripe revolts. The list goes on.
So I decided to set out on a journey to find out what dangerous food really meant. Some people are driven by passion, some ambition ... I live by the whim of my belly. Even my dreams are crammed with snowy-white crab claws, succulent, smoky barbeque and vast ribs of bloody British beef. To describe me as being bitten by the food bug is somewhat of an understatement. Mauled and savaged more like, and left for dead.
There are, of course, downsides to this largely benevolent gastro-dictatorship. Moods darken when meals are missed. Cheap, mass-produced, flavourless pap makes me rage like Lear on the heath. And I often have to go hungry rather than submit my body to the bland indignity of a supermarket ready meal. But I'm far from a food snob. I'm just as happy chewing on a plate of Buffalo wings as I am with truffle-studded sweetbreads. A rich, unctuous steak and kidney pudding is as exciting as quivering o-Toro sashimi. Crisply battered fish and chips vies with osietra caviar in the fish stakes while a perfect cheeseburger is a thing of exquisite beauty.
Then there's the issue of 'eating dangerously'. Some might see this as some chest-thumping quest to prove my virility, a masochistic voyage of endless ego-fluffing. In the beginning, I had visions of swooping into Iraq, riding shotgun with the British army's dawn patrol before stopping off for a lunch of fresh grilled Tigris fish. Or getting rowdy in Kabul with a grizzle of mercenaries, loosing off AKs while feasting on sheep. If I were very lucky, I might even get a beach barbeque in Somalia. Then I realised the howling crassness of such a thought, cheap thrills and even cheaper copy. Talking of feasts and fancies while others lay dying around me.
But even in the altogether less risky parts of the world, I still bore a problem that I couldn't ignore – me. I'm not a six foot two, achingly cool New York chef who'll devour anything in his sight. As much as I want to be Anthony Bourdain, it ain't going to happen. I'm a rather windy, five foot eleven and a half toff. Unlike the great Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall, I would balk at chewing on placenta or pig's bollocks.
Much of what I planned to eat or do appalled me, but I suppose that was part of the fun. But I wanted to start off near to home, and somewhere which wouldn't involve eating cat meat sashimi or porcupine brain. And the first stage of my journey saw me venturing just 100 miles to the south-west, to the exotic wilds of Gloucester.
* * *
It is Joe who starts it all off. The editor of a national restaurant magazine, he is to be one of my companions on the hunt for elvers. An angelic mop of curly hair does little to hide a world-weary, sardonic humour.
'The Elvers have landed,' comes the Belfast whisper. 'And this time it's for real.' Thank Christ for that. There is no time to linger, so I stumble around my flat, frantically throwing clothes, notebooks and waterproof everythings into a bag in preparation for my trip down the M40. It is mid-May, and I have been waiting a month and a half for a confirmed call to action. But every time my Gloucestershire adventure seems ready to roll, Mother Nature throws another hissy fit, conjuring up yet more torrential rain or cloudless skies. Irritating at the best of times but downright excruciating when you're awaiting the perfect conditions for the fishing of elvers, or baby eels. I begin to fear that I will never make it, thwarted by the elements and sent reeling by the cruel right hook of fate.
My Lear-like pout against nature is all forgotten, though, as I pick up Joe and we crawl west through the fumes and fury of rush hour traffic. Hungry, and with our only prospect of sustenance the unspeakable horrors of the petrol station chilla-cabinet, I begin to dream of a vast plateful of elvers, freshly plucked from the river and fried in pools of glimmering bacon fat. With this delectable image infusing my imagination, not even the pious glare of endless speed cameras can dull my excitement. This is the life, I think, as grey concrete turns, gradually, into winding lanes, over-priced antique shops and luscious green vistas.
So enraptured am I by the brilliant glory of British spring, at this moment gambolling past my windscreen, that I begin to sing a celebratory tune. Joe is less enamoured by my tuneful rendition of 'The Sun Has Got His Hat On' and asks me politely to cease and desist. If you can call 'shut the fuck up' polite. We drive on in silence, only to realise that I have taken a wrong turn somewhere near Bibury and led us on a rather lengthy diversion through the deepest Cotswolds. But even this entirely usual occurrence – I must learn that a gut-instinct for a rural short cut does not necessarily make a map redundant – does little to blunt my jolly swagger and a few hours later than planned, we arrive in Newnham, a chocolate-box-pretty town a few miles outside Gloucester. There, we were to meet up with Horace Cook, a legendary elder statesmen of the elver scene and a fount of knowledge on all things black and slippery.
As we wait for him to turn up, thoughts turn to a pint of local cider. Two gulps later, and we are ready to take part in a great old English tradition, one as popular now as it was 200 years back. But whereas once the spoils of the fishing were devoured within hours of catching, today's haul is far too valuable for mere eating.
As near back as 50 years ago, the elver was a much-loved regional speciality. A recipe from a Mr Smith, 'late of Fisher's Tudor House, Gloucester, and The Plough Inn, Cheltenham' in Florence White's Good Things in England, instructs that 'A plateful makes a complete meal for a working man.'
For a few months from the end of February until the end of May, millions of elvers or 'glass eels' would swarm up waterways from the sea in search of the perfect habitation. It was such a popular occasion that huge celebrations called 'eel fares' (probably where the word elvers came from) were held alongside the banks of English rivers, where you could dip your net into the water and haul it out filled with writing bounty.
I found a notice board on the Internet, dedicated to Gloucester life and found 'Nobby' talking about his youth.
When I was a boy, we used to catch them by the tub load at Weinlodes (I know I spelt it wrong). Elver net with 12 ft pole, net with 4 ft × 3 ft backboard. Into the galvanised tub and then 'whomp' them by the pillowcase full. Ears peeled for the sound of 'Floodho!!!' coming from down stream. At which point you, your mates, the net, the elvers and the Tilly lamp would career up the bank. Next morning, taking them round the White City, ringing the bell and shouting, 'Helvahs, Helvahs,' and selling them by the pint. I still remember when the first Elver Station appeared. One wonders what the Elverers of the old days would feel of their prize going to become a dish for the Japanese.
He's not quite right about the elvers becoming a dish for the Japanese (they are mainly eaten as adult eels and bought small to breed) but it was very much a part of local life. And so numerous were these translucent, noodle-like wrigglers that the excess catch was used for pig feed and fertiliser. Now, only the most extravagant working man would consider a few pounds for his tea. And the fairs have crumbled into the mists of history. Those cheery visions of bucolic bank-side parties, which sound about as threatening as a National Trust tea doily, have been replaced by something altogether more perilous. Because this particular stretch of Severn riverbank – the one I am to visit tonight – is no Wind in the Willows idyll. Judging by the stories that I've heard for the last few months, certain areas seemed more like downtown Baghdad than a comfy place to plop a net.
* * *
The change in elver fishing image, from regional treat to multi-million pound industry, has been slow but inevitable. The main problem is that while the worldwide demand for eels is ever growing (especially from those eel-obsessed Japanese), the numbers of elvers is in freefall. If scientists had perfected the farming of baby eels, this wouldn't be a problem. Just grow a few more and, before you can say 'smoked eel with horseradish', you've solved the problem.
But the eel, as I am to find out, is the most mysterious of fish and not given to such facile solutions. Despite years of experimentation and laboratory high-jinks, scientists have not found a way to hatch eels from their larval stage. So every single farmed eel in the world (and the demand for eel way outstrips the rivers' natural stocks) must be grown from a wild-caught elver, which puts one hell of a bounty on their translucent little heads.
Last year, elver prices reached a high of £400 cash, per kilo. Seeing that anyone – in theory – can pitch up and try his luck, there's a lot of money to be made for seemingly little effort, most of it beyond the taxman's sticky mitts. Throw in a fast-running river and a couple of pints of beer and this piscine gold rush starts to look a little hairy. Add a gaggle of ex-SAS soldiers, brought in to protect some particularly lucrative spots, an Anglo-Sino face-off and an entire armoury of shotguns, flick-knives and four by twos and the whole thing looks downright suicidal. That's not to say that there aren't plenty of lawa-biding, tax-paying fishermen operating completely above board. There are. It's just the others one has to worry about.
'It can get a little rough out there,' warns Joe, as we nurse our pints and wait for Horace. 'And the river bank can become a very dangerous place to be at night. Especially,' he adds with a twinkle in his eye, 'for a nosy toff like you.'
I assure him that I can handle myself and that he doesn't want to see me when angry.
'Ooh, it's Pooter with attitude,' he roars, eyes watery with mirth. 'I'm cacking my pants. And I'm sure all those big lads out there tonight will be too.'
I stare deep into my diminishing pint, worrying about the evening ahead. Forget The Old Man and the Sea ... this promises to be The Wild Bunch on the banks of the Severn.
* * *
Little known outside the West of England, the Severn elver run marks the ultimate stage of a stunning natural exodus, where millions of young eels wriggle from the salt waters of the Atlantic up into the fresh of the Severn. Their ultimate aim is to find the perfect muddy patch of river, a place to call home for the next few years. But they have to battle upstream first and do so using the power of the Severn Bore, a tide that occurs one to three days after full and new moons. These miniature tidal waves can move at speeds of up to 21 km per hour, reaching heights of up to three metres, big and fast enough to surf on. I've seen the pictures.
Nowadays, their numbers are diminished, and you have to look very hard to spot them. A hundred years back, it was an entirely different story. In 1902, these miniature, writhing serpents, about two inches long, were so numerous that they even made it up the Thames. According to C.J. Cornish in his Naturalist on the Thames, they 'came up in such tens of millions that they made a black margin to the river on either side by the bank, where they swam because the current was there weakest'. Theodora Fitzgibbon describes the ascending hordes as looking like 'a mass of jelly swimming in the water', adding that 'they should only be eaten when they are transparent and plump, never when the skin has darkened'.
And it was their abundance and excellent flavour that endeared them to generations of locals. This was free, seasonal food at its finest. 'Severn Eels are good eating,' enthuses Geoffrey Grigson in The Shell Country Book.
They can be bought by the pint in Gloucestershire, the elver-fisherman's headquarters, in the market and at fish mongers, about Easter time when the elvers crowd up the Severn on the spring tides. There are various ways of preparing them – with beaten-up eggs; dusted with flour and fried in oil or deep fat; boiled in a cloth to make an elver loaf, which is then sliced and fried.
'Local consultations are advisable,' he finishes ominously. The first time I came across cooked elvers was in a London restaurant. I was fascinated by this ruinously expensive pile of threads (£25 for a side plate's worth) and they arrived at the table, sizzling in a terracotta dish. They were cooked in the Spanish style, which meant chilli and garlic and I'll never forget that first taste; their texture is superb, soft but faintly crunchy. And their flavour is subtle and elusive, just tempered by a whisper of the sea. Ever since that fateful mouthful, I not only wanted more but wanted to find out more. A huge delicacy in Spain, they're almost ignored in England. Here, people would balk at paying such astronomical prices for little more than a bowlful of worms. And as I am later to find out, the vast majority of Gloucester elvers are whisked off to foreign climes for breeding.
Nowadays, the Spanish style of eating anguillas is the best known. But the British have many a traditional recipe for them too. The 'Gloucester style' involves their being washed in plenty of salted water (like adult eels, they are coated in a slimy mucus) – Jane Grigson recommends using a pillowcase so you can wash them, then squeeze out the moisture – before frying up a couple of slices of bacon until crisp. The bacon is removed from the pan, the elvers thrown in and cooked until opaque. You mix in a beaten egg, cook for a few moments more before pouring it all on the bacon and eating with a splash of vinegar. A near-perfect, porky piscine breakfast. If you wanted elver cake, you'd add herbs and onion juice to the mixture, before turning them into a dish, pressing down and cooling until hard set.
Excerpted from The Year of Eating Dangerously by Tom Parker Bowles. Copyright © 2006 Tom Parker Bowles. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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