Nice and eel-y does it for me

PUBLISHED: 13:48 27 April 2006 | UPDATED: 13:23 04 May 2010

THE Isle of Ely means just that, Eel Island, and as regular readers of my column will know, until the Sixteenth Century Ely was surrounded by water. As the Ice Age receded, the clay and green sand covering left a fen island that was surrounded by marsh an

THE Isle of Ely means just that, Eel Island, and as regular readers of my column will know, until the Sixteenth Century Ely was surrounded by water. As the Ice Age receded, the clay and green sand covering left a fen island that was surrounded by marsh and mere.

The fens were an extremely remote and inhospitable area of the country. People who lived here had to develop a way of existence that utilised the natural produce of their surroundings. Reeds, clay and willow were used in providing shelter. Peat provided fuel for their fires.

Fish and fowl were the obvious means of food to sustain the family's needs. Travelling from place-to-place, however, was not too easy and to get across the flooded plains, the Fen folk made wooden stilts to walk through the marshes, or used Fen runners (skates) in the winter.

Also readily available were the eels that could be found in such great abundance in the local rivers. It is not surprising then to find that in 1086 the Domesday Book assessed Ely at 10 hides, land to plough 20 teams, 'the fisheries rendered 3,750 eels'.

Yet Stutney was only one-and-a-half hides with land for three plough teams and rendered a staggering 24,000 eels. Of course, at that time the River Great Ouse had not been re-routed to run closer to Ely and her course lay just under Stutney Hill on the Ely side and then on to Prickwillow.

In medieval times, meat and fish had to be fresh, although a variety of preservation techniques could be used, fresh fish from a local supply was highly valued. Diocesan records from Ely in 1352 record that in one week fresh fish was eaten by the monks everyday except for Thursday. On Saturday the menu was eels with pepper, cumin and saffron.

Fresh fish for the Abbey came from the weirs on the River Great Ouse and dried and salted fish was brought at King's Lynn or from the Norfolk fishing ports such as Cromer. There were also the Prior's fish ponds in the Cathedral precinct, which provided very fresh fish.

Eels would be trapped with glaives, a three pronged fork, or rod and line.

The professional fishermen used eel nets as well as eel glaives and the smaller traps, made from willow that were baited and sunk in the rivers. These willow traps held the eels until the fishermen came along to pour the catch into boats. These glaives, a much more elongated shape, use the same principle as lobster pots.

For those of you interested, fresh eel apparently has a very succulent taste and can be prepared in numerous ways, according to the internet! Coming from London you probably think that I was brought up on jellied eels, well no, not something I ever came across, I'm sorry to say. Smoked eel is the only form that I have tasted this speciality and highly recommended it.

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