Consider the Eel

Consider the Eel

Consider the Eel

Consider the Eel


Journalist Richard Schweid first learned the strange facts of the freshwater eel's life from a fisherman in a small Spanish town just south of Valencia. "The eeler who explained the animal's life cycle to me did so as he served up an eel he had just taken from a trap, killed, cleaned, and cooked in olive oil in an earthenware dish," writes Schweid. "I ate it with a chunk of fresh, crusty bread. It was delicious. I was immediately fascinated."

As this engaging culinary and natural history reveals, the humble eel is indeed an amazing creature. Every European and American eel begins its life in the Sargasso Sea--a vast, weedy stretch of deep Atlantic waters between Bermuda and the Azores. Larval eels drift for up to three years until they reach the rivers of North America or Europe, where they mature and live as long as two decades before returning to the Sargasso to mate and die. Eels have never been bred successfully in captivity.

Consulting fisherfolk, cooks, and scientists, Schweid takes the reader on a global tour to reveal the economic and gastronomic importance of eel in places such as eastern North Carolina, Spain, Northern Ireland, England, and Japan. (While this rich yet mild-tasting fish has virtually disappeared from U.S. tables, over $2 billion worth of eel is still eagerly consumed in Europe and Asia each year.) The book also includes recipes, both historic and contemporary, for preparing eel.


It was a June morning in 1998 when I first learned some of the basic facts of an eel’s mysterious natural history.

Every European and American freshwater eel is conceived and born in the weedy Sargasso Sea, a vast, rarely traveled, 2 million square miles of deep Atlantic Ocean between Bermuda and the Azores. The prevailing currents carry the larval eels to their prospective homes in the freshwater rivers of either the United States and Canada or Europe. The tiny larvae—shaped like little leaves— drift with the currents for about a year if they get carried to North American rivers, or up to three years if they are carried to Europe.

When the eel larvae enter fresh water, they begin to actively hunt food for the first time and transform into what we know as eels. They may live their bottom-dwellers’ lives in fresh water for as long as 20 years. Then, one day, they head back downriver toward the ocean and begin to transform again, as their bodies prepare for what may be a journey of as much as a thousand miles across the Atlantic. Their digestive systems atrophy, because during the trip through the ocean depths they will rely on stored energy and will not eat. Their eyes start to widen, changing for optimal vision in dim blue ocean light, and their muddy-green bellies turn snow-white. They will encounter multiple predators during the long saline passage ahead, back to the Sargasso Sea, where they will mate, reproduce, and die.

I learned all these things in El Palmar, a small town just south of Valencia, Spain, and the eeler who explained the animal’s life cycle to me did so as he served up an eel he had just taken from a trap, killed, cleaned, and cooked in olive oil in an earthenware dish. I

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