On the whole it was a fairly small village-fête-type affair, but there were some nice displays of well-distilled information about Cambridgeshire's soggy history and, specifically, Ely's eely past. The eels which gave the island its name were famed far and wide as a delicacy, to the extent that the good folk of Ely were able to use them as currency. These days, paying your rent in eels would at best be seen as an ironic comment on the property's floodproofing. Among other fascinating pop facts we learned that eel skin could cure the ague if wrapped around the ailing limb.
Two live eels swam in a fish tank by the information displays. I'd expected them to look snake-like, or fish-like, or both; but twining around each other in the small, confined, space of murky water they were just a slithering mass of dark skin, eyes gleaming through the gloom.
On the other side of the field, the local Wissey Valley Brewery were doing a brisk trade in Eel Catcher beer. I sampled a half-pint and was quite impressed, but when we went back to buy a few bottles we discovered that trade had in fact been so brisk that the bottles had slipped away like eels in the night. Recommended, though, if you see it on sale -- apparently Ely Farmer's Market is the place to go to buy both this and the local cider (which had sold out before we even got there, though the brewery chap was happy to tell us all about how Suffolk cider is made).
Bolstered by the beer, we ventured to the stall that was actually selling eel for the eating. There may well be many convenient ways to eat eel out in the open on a sunny spring day, but at the time the simplest (and cheapest) way to procure a manageable taste seemed to be a small pot of jellied eel. The eel vendor's salesmanship was sufficiently slippery that he also talked us into buying a whole fresh eel "for later". We asked how to cook it. "Just cut it up, dust the pieces with flour and pan-fry them," he said. Simple, we thought; so with only a moment's worry about the advisability of carrying an eel in a plastic bag on the rail-replacement bus back to Cambridge, we selected a small specimen and went to sit by the river with our spoils.
Now, jellied eel is possibly not the most appetising of foods to look at:
but I was quite taken with the taste -- fairly meaty and not too fishy, with a far firmer texture than I'd expected. The only real downside was the bones -- fish bones annoy me even in small quantities, and an eel is basically a long string of bones. (I suspect that, as with sardines and their ilk, you're expected to just manfully crunch your way through the odd segment of spine, but frankly I'd rather chew chalk, so I picked my way delicately around them.) The skin was surprisingly edible and not at all rubbery.
We didn't get round to cooking the fresh eel the next day, and when it came to the crunch, it was almost too cute to cook; it looked almost alive, all curled round in a tupperware box with its smooth grey-green skin and black eyes and tiny half-open mouth. Stroking its head caused its mouth to open a fraction wider, as if it was trying to tell us something ("don't cook me," probably). I wondered if I was developing an unhealthy fixation with eels.
To cook it, though, we had to cut it up. Now, I own a cutting implement branded as The World's Sharpest Knife, which you'd think -- even allowing for advertisers' exaggerations -- would have no problem with an inch of fishy flesh. Again, however, the problem was the bones, and by the time Owen and I had spent ten minutes slowly sawing through eel spine I longed for advances in genetic engineering which could lead us to breed boneless animals.
But to cut a long story (and a longer eel) short, the creature was chopped into manageable chunks and pan-fried as recommended, and added to a Thai-style stir-fry, where it wreaked its revenge on us for taking advantage of its tastiness by filling our bowls (and probably bowels) with tiny bones.
Probably not an experiment I'll be repeating at home, but definitely worth trying.