Boiling the Eels at Barney’s Seafood
On most mornings throughout the year, just a stone’s throw from the Tower of London, you will find them boiling the eels at Barney’s Seafood, under an old railway arch in Chambers St. For the past twenty-eight years Mark Button has presided there over the business that his father Eddie Button took over in 1970 from Barnet Gritzman (brother of Solomon Gritzman, the owner of Tubby Isaac’s), who was here boiling eels since before World War II. Thus you will know that this is an established location for the pursuit of one of the East End’s most traditional culinary tasks, the preparation of jellied eels.
Yesterday morning, I joined Stuart – a blocksman of twenty-two years’ experience – with a firm jaw and resolute eyes, at the rear of the arch in a room awash in pools of water, where he brandishes a fearsome curved blade with striking accomplishment, making short work of gutting and chopping great gleaming piles of eels. Arriving fresh from the tanks in Canning Town, Stuart tipped the morning’s eels out onto the bench where at first they slithered and slid in a shining mass. Then, gripping each one firmly by the head, Stuart decapitated it in the manner of those traitors of old across the road at Tower Hill, before slicing it open with a flick of the knife and disposing of both the head and the gut into the bin. It is a neat series of honed gestures that require both skill and years of practice, and you can be assured, Stuart has got the knack.
Interspersed with constant sharpening, since the eels’ back bone quickly blunts the long blade, Stuart likes to keep his knife razor sharp. “I’d rather cut my finger with a sharp blade than a blunt one!” he joked with enthusiastic grim humour as another eel’s head plopped into the bin. Yet make no mistake, Stuart has the greatest respect for eels. “Eels are very mysterious,” he said, turning philosophical and standing in absent-minded contemplation, with an eel and a blade in each hand, “There’s not a lot people know about eels. It’s funny how they know how to go to the Sargasso Sea, they’ve got a homing instinct.”
Once Stuart had chopped them up neatly, Paul the personable cook of ten years experience cooking eels, came from next door to collect the baskets of sliced fish and carry them through to the pots for boiling. Four tall steel cooking pots stood in a line on gas rings, each with filled with salt water and a bundle of parsley, some with eels already cooking and others just bubbling up to the boil, creating a wonderfully pungent sweet salty warm atmosphere. Paul tipped the eels straight into the hot water to cook, a process that can take between forty-five minutes to an hour and a half, depending on the type of eel, and he turned to lay out the bowls in neat lines upon shelves on the other side of the room, all ready for the eels when they are cooked. “Today we’ve got fresh Dutch eels and some frozen Chinese eels,” he explained helpfully, “Yesterday we had New Zealand eels and in a couple of weeks we’ll have the native Irish eels – they are best, seasonal, grown in the wild, nice texture and nice to eat.” Adding politely, “Have you ever thought of working in the fish industry?” he enquired – eager to make me feel included in such an enthralling process and flattering me with the question.
“You need to get them just before they’re cooked, when they’re as soft as possible” he continued, “because they harden afterwards,” – educating me, as he lifted a spoonful from the water and tasted one critically, before switching off the flames below and performing the delicate manoeuvre of sliding the pot off the cooking ring and onto a trolley. Catching me unawares so early in the morning, “Would you like to try one?” he asked – sensing my fascination – and naturally I assented. He passed me the morsel of pale eel flesh and I put it in my mouth. It was sweet and warm and it crumbled when I sank my teeth into it, releasing a delicate salty tangy flavour. In that instant, I wanted a plate of hot mashed potato to go with it, and I wanted more eels too. Paul did not know it was my first time, yet although I will have to wait until my next visit to a pie and mash shop to eat a plate of hot eels, I was converted.
Then Paul set about methodically distributing the eels equally into bowls, letting them cool and set in the jelly that is their natural preservative. And by then it was time for him to collect more baskets of sliced eels from Stuart and tip them into the cooking pot. Meanwhile, a stream of customers were pulling up outside and coming in excitedly to shake hands with Mark Button and carry away their bowls of fresh jellied eels for the weekend, as a tasty treat to restore their spirits. No other food excites such passion in the East End as the eel, and that is why East Enders delight to make the pilgrimage to Barney’s – they come to claim the dish that is their right.
“Eels are very mysterious, there’s not a lot people know about them”
Stuart, a blocksman of twenty-two years experience who learnt the trade from Eddie Button.
Eels simmering with parsley in cooking pots of salt water.
Paul the cook - “Have you ever thought of working in the fish industry?”
Mark Button, proprietor of Barney’s Seafoods
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