Wednesday, February 11, 2015
Eeling- a nocturnal wild foods activity Peter Langlands With the exception of the Taupo region, eels are found throughout New Zealand. They inhibit just about any freshwater habitat, often living out of sight under over hanging banks by day. Eels, because of their abundance in inland locations, were, and still are an important food source for the Maori, and traditional harvests still occur at locations such as Lake Forsyth (Wairewa) where up to 600 eels are caught a night during autumn, seaward, migrations. Eels often have a thick layer of fat below their skin, and as they can be easily dried, where very which an important food for Maori journeys through areas where food was otherwise scare. Not only that but our freshwater eels are superb eating, and especially so when smoked. That thick layer of fat is full of flavour and is dramatically enhanced after being smoked over manuka wood. It is important with eels, prior to smoking, that they are left out in the fresh air, lightly salted, to dry out over a day or two, as otherwise the eels have a high moisture content and tend to be steamed, rather than smoked, if not left to air dry first. The fun aspect of eeling is that it is an activity that is readily available to everyone, and in most regions in New Zealand you are entitled to catch six eels per person per day. Eels can be caught by a variety of methods; the simplest is to place out a baited setline, which only costs a few cents to make. Basically use a baited hook tied onto monofilament line of at least 20 pounds breaking strain. Oily fish bait is best. Leave the bait to soak for 20 minutes or so before re-checking. Have the line firmly secured to a steak on the riverbank, or lake’s edge. Spearing can also be highly effective, as eels cruise river margins at night. Haul the eel onto dry ground, and as quickly as possible grab it behind its head with a towel, and severe the backbone, as a quick and humane way of killing the eel. It you find the prospect of preparing an eel for the smoker daunting, simply take the eel to a fish shop, or butcher. Many larger centers will have a shop that will commercially smoke, prepare, and vacuum pack your catch. The best eating eels are in the one to two kilogram ranges. I have a policy of releasing any eels over four kilograms, as these eels are likely to be very old, over 50 years (and up to 100!), and will also be prime breeding stock that will ensure the future of eeling in years to come. Hot smoked eels are absolutely delicious, and much of the current catch is exported to Europe (and Japan), so when locally available, which is rarely in my neck of the woods, in Christchurch, it often sells for $70 a kilogram! So the option of catching my own, from the nearest waterway with clean water, which is only ten minutes from home, is a good one. At the moment smoked freshwater eel from Thailand and China, is for sale in New Zealand, but doesn’t compare in quality to our freshwater eels. We can do better with the home grown product. Served either smoked on toast with avocado, tossed in a Greek salad, or braised in a teriyaki sauce, freshwater eel remains one of my favorite foods, and one in which I have the satisfaction of catching myself.