Claudia Romeo: We’re in London, England, and today we’re going to see how jellied eels are made. If you think that fish and chips is the most traditional fish dish that you can get here in London, think again.
Jellied eels and London have a history that is hundreds of years old, going back to the times where the eel population was thriving in the River Thames. Nowadays, there are not as many eels as there were in the past, but the dish has stood the test of time.
Let’s go see how it’s made. In their glory days, jellied eels were so popular that in the East End of London, competition among vendors was tough. Today, jellied eels can be found all over the UK, at summer kiosks and racecourses, but there are only a handful of merchants who actually make them, all based in London.
One of these is Barneys, an East End institution run by Mark Button, by his father, Eddie, before him, and now Mark’s son has even gotten involved. Despite the challenges, Mark believes that jellied eels are far from being on the verge of disappearing.
Mark Button: The eel has become harder to get. We used to have eels every day. From Whitstable and Southend-on-Sea, they used to come up to London. Literally, 1,000 kilos a day would come into London of fresh Thames eels, Thames Estuary eels.
But they’re no longer there. They disappeared. The price of eels today are dearer than salmon. When my father took over the business in the 1960s, the man that sold him the business said, “I don’t think there’s much left of it.
See what you can do.” And that was in 1965, which I know is 55 years ago ’cause that’s when I was born. 55 years later, we’re still going on. We’re now at the third generation in the business. Claudia: The first step to making jellied eels is to clean the fish, take the guts out, and cut the eels into portions.
Mark: These are the eels. I mean, they start off as live eels last night, but we have them stunned so they are ready to work. Otherwise, if they were to move, the boys couldn’t work on them. It would be too dangerous.
Claudia: Oh, I see. Mark: They use very sharp knives. They’re fantastic to work on. Otherwise, you’d never handle them. If it’s a live eel, if you picked them up, you’d be chasing them around the room.
Claudia: Is it easier to clean than a normal fish? Mark: Well, these guys have been doing it for many years, so they find it easy. But even if you put a man who worked with normal fish, flat fish, on this job, they would find it very hard.
It’s a different shape fish, it’s a different bone, it’s the different pressures you put on the… you’ll see Simon, at the end there, he uses a lot of strength in his arms and wrists. To push it through.
Claudia: Oh, right, yeah. So, they have different knives, actually. Mark: Yeah, this is a filleting knife, and the guys here are cutting using cutting knives. Claudia: Oh, I see here. Mark: Every cut, there’s hundreds and hundreds of cuts per day.
Claudia: So they have to be sharp. Mark: So they have to be very sharp. And they have to concentrate, because you don’t want to lose a digit. Claudia: Yeah, yeah, yeah, definitely. Yeah, the finger is very close.
I’ve read that the eels only have one bone. Mark: With the jelly process, we leave the bone in, and the customer eats around the bone. Claudia: OK. So, the part that you eat, is it just the beginning? Or you also eat the tail? Mark: The flatter part is no good.
So the pieces would start here, so from behind the gill going back right the way through. So when you gut these, these pieces when they’re cooked will be open, and these pieces when they’re cooked will be round.
Which you’ll see. I’ll show you the difference. Claudia: Oh, all right. So you know where they come from? Mark: Some people, they call these the horseshoe pieces. So it looks like a horseshoe, which is open.
That’s where they fully remove that belly. Claudia: And you leave the skin as well. Mark: Leave the skin on. Claudia: And where do they come from? They don’t come from the Thames, right? Mark: No, we haven’t had any English eels for many years now.
We get eels from Holland, and also we get wild eels from Northern Ireland, from Lough Neagh. With this time of year, because they’ve taken on a winter coat, they’ve been feeding well and they’re storing body fat, so they’re very good high fat content, which gives the eel a chance to migrate on a 6,000-, 7,000-mile journey, and they’ll lose weight as they’re swimming.
But when they’re a summer eel and they’ve been eating a lot of food but they’re not absorbing it, the meat will be thinner, but it will eat softer because they’re not storing it. So they’re not storing the fuel.
Claudia: So this one will have more body? Like, it will be more meaty. Mark: More meaty, yeah. At the moment, we’re processing about 300 kilos a day. Claudia: Once all the eels have been cut in portions, we move to this other room, where they will be boiled in herb-infused water.
Mark: So, we flavor the water with a bouquet garni, which is mainly parsley and pimentos. Which has got the — Claudia: Yeah, I can smell it. Mark: You smell the aroma? Claudia: And so the bag is never opened? It stays closed in there just to flavor the water? Mark: Just to flavor the water, then we remove that and the water’s flavored, and we add the eels to it.
Depending on the nature of the eel, this time of year, they take a bit longer to cook. About 45, 50 minutes. Claudia: Oh, that’s a long time. Mark: Yeah, in the summer months, it could be 30 minutes ’cause the eel is softer, ’cause it’s a summer eel.
I explained about the winter coat. They take a bit longer to cook to compensate, to make the flesh softer. So, we’re slowly seeing the eels cook. The sediment is on the eel, and that will be taken off.
And the fat is coming to the top as well. Like anything else, you’re skimming the fat off and leave the juice clear for being decanted into the bowls. Claudia: It smells already, like, herby. Mark: You can smell the parsley in the air.
It’s because we now have got four pots on, the aroma here, I mean, we haven’t got smelly vision yet, but the aroma is quite pleasant. Claudia: Yeah, yeah. Yeah, it doesn’t smell like, I don’t know, when you’re doing a fish soup.
No, not at all. It smells very fresh, like the parsley, as you said. Mark: That’s right, you can smell the herbs. Claudia: Yeah, yeah. And will you add any more ingredients, or that is that? Mark: No, the only thing that Simon will add to this is salt.
Claudia: Salt? Mark: Yeah. A bit nearer the end process rather than in the beginning. Claudia: Wait, so how about the jelly? So you don’t add any gelatine? Mark: Yeah, we use a gelatine granule. Because of the commercial volume, and setting them, and traveling, and shelf life, we have to use a granulated gelatine.
Claudia: OK. ‘Cause I read that the fish itself releases some — Mark: If you were to cook one eel on its own, put it in the fridge overnight in the water you cooked it in, it would jellify. But not to the point of sending it to Leigh-on-Sea, or Clacton, or Scotland, or Edinburgh.
Claudia: Yeah, of course. Mark: We’ve got to have a shelf life now. So the gelatine powder suspends it with the salt and gives it a good shelf life. Claudia: Our jellied-eel bowls are ready, and they will now rest for about a day.
Overnight, the gelatine will set, and the eels will slowly float to the top. Mark: So, here we have yesterday’s production, which are now jellied eels. They come in a bowl like this. We’re ready for the main label.
We’ve all the data on which we’ve followed through on production. Claudia: And here they are. Mark: It’s a sealed lid, ’cause we put them on hot. Claudia: Oh! Mark: And that is the — Claudia: Nice wiggle.
Mark: Finished product there. Claudia: How many pieces of eels are there? Mark: It’s approximately 90 pieces. Claudia: OK. Mark: Approximately. It’s done by visual. Over the years, the person doing it gets a good eye to what’s in there.
If the eels are cut slightly bigger, there’ll be slightly less pieces. These are a good winter eel. There should be a good 85 to 90 pieces. Jellied eels. So, this is the finished product. Claudia: And that’s it.
Now it’s nice and solid. Mark: So now you’ve got the solid gelatine texture. A consumer would take the pieces out, and now you got the jelly. Claudia: Ooh. So, normally do you eat it like this? Mark: Most people would eat it, I mean, we’ve just taken this out of the fridge, so it’s gonna be extremely cold.
Claudia: Cool. Mark: But it’s better when the jelly becomes a little bit more room temperature, but not too floppy. But eating-wise, that’s the piece of eel. Claudia: Wow! And that’s the bone there, huh? Mark: That’s the bone that’s left.
You’ve got the saltiness in the jelly, and you’ve got the texture of the fish. If you wanted to try it, there’s a clean spoon there. Claudia: Yes. Mark: It does get a bit messy with the gelatine. I’ll leave you with that.
Claudia: All right. Which one should I have? Should I have the one that’s open? Mark: They’re all good. Claudia: Or the one from the back? Mark: The open piece is good. Claudia: This one? Oh, there’s a lot of gelatine.
Mark: You can knock some of the jelly off. Some people don’t always like the flavor. I mean, it’s cold. As I said, it’s just coming straight out of the fridge, so it’s cold. Claudia: All right, let me get the bone.
All right. It’s good. Mark: Yes? Claudia: I don’t mind the jelly. I actually like it. Mark: The saltiness in the jelly. Claudia: Yeah, I like the saltiness of the jelly with the fish. I think they go very well together, yeah.
The fish is nice, as you said. It has a meaty texture. Mark: The eel is a lost thing. People don’t always wanna eat eel. But it’s a — Claudia: I mean, this gives it a bit more character, I think. Mark: It does, yeah.
Claudia: The eel itself is, like, just fish. Mark: And you can imagine, if you’re out enjoying yourself and not in a factory environment, these are quite nice. Claudia: Yeah, it’s a nice snack. Mark: If you’re having a drink as well, it’s a nice snack.
Or a meal even. Claudia: So, do you think it is better like this than with, like, vinegar or something on top? Mark: I mean, we’ve got some non-brewed vinegar, if you’d like to try another piece with some vinegar on.
Would you like to try that? Claudia: OK. Mark: Yeah? So people would just do that. Claudia: Yeah. Why not? Yeah, it’s good. It’s more salty now. But, yeah, you still get the freshness of the jelly, and the fish.
If you think that fish and chips is the most… Has stood the test of time. Fish dish. It’s just a lot of -ish. The dish has stood the taste of time. The test.
Producer: Taste of time. I like that. Claudia: The test!