BASKETRY - Eel Traps

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Anguilla anguilla, the European eel. They rarely reach more than 1 m (3 ft 3 in), but can reach a length of up to 1.5 m (nearly 5 ft).

With its snake-like appearance, slimy skin, nocturnal habits and near-mythical ability to slither over wet grass and mud from one watercourse to the next, the eel has often been the subject of fascinated revulsion. Eels have a primitive nervous system and are notoriously difficult to kill; even chopping off the head results in the unsettling spectacle of the fish writhing around for minutes as if unharmed.

The European eel breeds at sea, but then makes its way up rivers to grow to maturity. It then returns to the sea to spawn some 6 to 20 years later. An eel can live for up to 85 years, but only if it’s not caught and eaten. Eels were an important part of the diet in many communities close to rivers, and in London they provided a cheap, nutritious and readily available food source for the city’s poorer people. One of the most famous areas for eels was the Fenland, with the city of Ely being named after the rising ground it stands on - the Isle of Eels. Eels were once so plentiful they were used as currency. Medieval records show that in 1201, payment for Glastonbury Abbey’s £13 in assize rent from the surrounding manor comprised “3,000 eels from the fishing at Stathe weir”.

Willow eel traps were once a common sight on British rivers, along with all the other devices used to harvest what was then seen as an inexhaustible supply of free food in our inland waters. When they were set in groups they were often a navigation hazard, leading to conflict between the fishermen and the boatmen. The smaller traps were known as ‘grig-wheels’, or ‘ground-wheels’, and the biggest traps were called ‘bucks’. These terms were even used in official documents like the Thames Conservancy Acts.

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As with all fish traps, after the eels have swum in through the mouth of the trap, they have to pass through another, narrower cone to get further in and reach the bait. The second cone is usually only just large enough to admit a good-sized eel, the sharp edges on the soft willow canes bending to let it in, but making it difficult for the fish to find its way back. It helps the process that eels are inquisitive creatures, always ready to explore dark holes and crevices

Just as lobster pots vary from one area to the next, so do eel traps, the general features remaining the same, but the design being geared to local conditions in the river and on its bed. These three examples from Coates English Willow Basket Museum show some of the differences.

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This a typical example of a Fenland ‘Grig Wheel. It would have been weighted down on the river bed with stones attached to a length of cord so that it could be hauled in to the bank. It was made in split brown willow, with a mixture of pairing and randing. There is no border. Instead the rods are cut off and the edge bound with skein.

At about six inches from the narrow end 15 extra split rods are pushed in alongside the existing staking to form a non-return funnel.

This trap was used to catch eels in Somerset rivers. It has two openings at right angles to each other and would not have rolled around on the river bed. It is fitched in brown willow, with the rods scallomed on to a hoop to form the catching mouth.

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This trap, in split brown willow, does not have the flared mouth, so may well have been placed in a shallower or narrower watercourse. Mill leats were popular places for eel traps, as the miller could lay the traps overnight, collect the eels in the morning, and sell them along with his flour. The trap is formed by randing with split rods on 11 split stakes, flowing from 3” to 6” diameter. It then tapers back to 3” with pairing, when bye stakes are inserted to form the non-return funnel. Then randed out to 8” and back to 5” at the catching mouth.

Sedgemoor Eel Stew

I have cooked and eaten conger, but I must admit to never having tasted our Somerset river eel. I am assured that it really is a delicious fish – its flesh is mild and delicate - and not to be put off by its snake-like form and sliminess. It is supposedly similar to salmon, but a little richer and much moister due to its high fat content, and they are not in the least bit muddy-tasting. This is a recipe that appears in 'English Food' by Jane Grigson. The eel is cooked in a sauce made of cider, stock and cream.

Ingredients

1 ½ to 2 kg (3 to 4 lb) freshwater eel

dry cider

150ml (¼ pint) double cream

4 tbs chopped parsley

salt and pepper

triangles of fried or toasted bread

Method

Begin by cutting the eel(s) into even-sized portions of around two inches in length. Season them lightly. Make a stock from the eel heads and skin as well as the flat part of the tails: Place the trimmings in a pan and cover them with half-water, half-cider. Bring to a boil and then cover and simmer for 20 minutes.

Arrange the eel pieces in a shallow pan and pour over enough hot stock to just barely cover them. Gently poach the eels for 10-15 minutes depending on the girth of your eels until the eel meat starts to come away from the bones. Don’t let the stock come to a proper boil though – steady poaching is the key. When cooked, remove the eel pieces and arrange them on a serving dish, cover them and keep them warm.

Now make the sauce by boiling down the cooking liquor to a good strong flavour and then add the cream and parsley. Season again if required. Pour the sauce over the eel and serve with the fried bread or toast.

And then, of course, there's Elvers.

Do let us have your memories (and photos) of elvering

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