Baby eel, the caviar of northern Spain
So delicious, but make sure you are eating the real thing.
South American literature abounds with references to fish and fishing. Among the many examples are the symbolic casting and recasting of little goldfish by Colonel Aureliano Buendía in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s classic, “One Hundred Years of Solitude.” Or Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa’s memoir, “A Fish in the Water.”
But there is one fish that gets left out of most literary references — the eel. The writer Patrick Svensson, author of, “The Book of Eels” made a rare eel reference last summer in the Paris Review:
“it’s often an unsettling, slightly revolting creature. It’s slimy and slithering, oily and slippery, a scavenger of the dark that salaciously crawls out of cadavers with gaping a mouth and beady black eyes.”
While the eel may fail to catch proper attention on the page, there is one place that this slippery fish does stand out — the plate. Which brings me to the subject of “angulas,” a tasty Spanish tapas and a personal favorite.
Angulas are baby eels that are traditionally prepared in the Basque style by frying them in olive oil with garlic and spicy red peppers (Angulas a la Bilbaina). They are typically served in a cazuela, an earthenware bowl that also serves as a cooking pot. Yet more modern preparations of angulas hold a special place on the menus of some of Spain’s top restaurants.
Often referred to as the “caviar of Northern Spain,” angulas (also known as “elvers” in English-speaking areas) were originally an everyday dish for the common fisherman. As a result of higher global demand and overfishing, these baby eels now often command prices well above sea level, at one point reaching 1,000 Euro a kilo. And, although the season for catching and eating angulas starts in November and ends in February, they are most frequently eaten as part of the Christmas (and New Years) festivities.
These baby eels are born in the Sargasso Sea, after the adult eels have travelled over five thousand kilometers westward across the Atlantic to spawn. The baby eels then make the return journey, which can last up to three years as they drift on the Gulf Stream currents, back to the coasts of Northern Spain, where fishermen with scoop nets are waiting.
When cooked, angulas turn white but for their two black eyes and have a delicate meaty texture and unique taste that is simply “deliciosa.”
I highly recommend a bowl of angulas when they are in season on your next trip to Madrid or the Basque region. But be forewarned that, due to escalating prices, less reputable dining establishments may serve “gulas” in place of angulas. Gulas are made from surimi, which is an inexpensive paste made from processed fish (also used to make imitation crab sticks).
This is not a case of potato, potata.
Danilo Diazgranados is an investor, collector, and lover of fine wines and a member of the prestigious Confrérie des Chevaliers du Tastevin, a fraternity of Burgundy wine enthusiasts.