7 January 2000

DEELicious…

Horrible slimy snake-like things they may be to some

people. But eels are manna from heaven to Michael Brown.

Tim Relf visits him at work in a Somerset smokery

EELS are steeped in folklore and mythology. And the Somerset levels is, according to Michael Brown, one of the "great soups" in which they traditionally thrived.

Locals still quote pre-War shepherd, Ernie Woods, who observed when the Chard reservoir was drained: "It were full of eels – 6ft long and they barked like dogs."

An exaggeration that may have been – but eels certainly were, for many years, an important part of the local diet – providing a freely available source of protein.

&#42 Become delicacy

More recently, however, their fate has paralleled that of the oyster. And, what was once a "poor mans food" has become something of a delicacy, with 8oz of smoked fillet costing £8.75.

"Theyre delicious," says Michael, owner of the Brown and Forrest business at Bowdens Farm, Curry Rivel. Hes crouching, blowing onto the embers in the smoker. Its here, over beech and apple, that eels are smoked for two hours. Other meats are also prepared here, including lamb, pork and ostrich.

Typically weighing a pound-and-a-quarter, the eels are caught by river keepers in "racks" as they migrate down the rivers Test and Avon between September and Christmas. Theyre frozen whole – "in the round" – when they arrive at the site then, when theyre thawed, the slime comes off. "Otherwise its just like handling a bar of soap," says Michael.

But despite their feel – and the connotations with snakes – this slippery customer certainly has found a fan in Michael. "They are beautiful fish – swimming machines," he says.

&#42 Kick-start habit

What people need, he says, is an introduction – and pâté is often a good way to kick-start the eating habit. Tasting sessions at the smokery help, with much trade done "at the door" – but the word is spreading, with mail-order now accounting for about 65% of sales.

Fillets make up about three-quarters of business. Delicious as a starter with lemon and black pepper on ryebread, says Michael.

But its not, it seems, just the taste people like. If local legend is to be believed, the young elvers also have another property worth remembering – as aphrodisiac. Its like an olden-day fisherman on the River Parrett once said: "The missus do love a feed of elvers – they do make her proper frisky."

Going up in smoke… smoked eel has gone from "poor mans food" to delicacy in recent years, says Michael Brown (left).