Sometimes I get requests from my readers for foods I do not make, eat or touch. This is one of those weeks. So here goes…Eels! My husband loves them but I don’t care. I will not cook them or handle them.
My beautiful mother who cooked everything, didn’t make them either. She always made what Buddy liked but not these! Christmas Eve at my Mom’s was a feast of fish…t no eels.
On these pages is a story on eel fishing (the Italians call it Anguilla) that celebrates them and some simple recipes that you will like if you like the snake-like fish on Christmas Eve. When Buddy takes our grandsons to The Bronx to get me fish for the holiday, my grandson Dallas loves to fish the eels out of the tank…they have fun.
In the Emilia Romagna, the town of Comacchio is built on 13 small islands, connected by brick bridges, hence its nickname of “Little Venice.” Surrounded by the wetlands of the Po River delta, it is only a short distance from the Adriatic Sea. Up until the 1950s, there were no roads to Comacchio; the sleepy fishing outpost was only accessible by water, so it is no wonder that it has not developed into a tourist hotspot like many towns along the Adriatic Coast. Travelers to the town are rewarded with a trip back in time.
The small town has many experiences to offer for those who revel in finding off-the-beaten track locations in Italy. It is an easy day trip from Ferrara, Ravenna, Bologna and Padua. Comacchio has its own character and a history that includes Etruscan, Roman and medieval eras. The town’s archaeology museum tells their captivating stories.
From its 17th century fortified bridge that protected the town when it could only be accessed by water, to a quarter mile long arcade with 143 arches, Comacchio has several must-see landmarks. The most famous feature of the town are the local eels which are roasted and marinated following a centuries-old process.
The locale is perhaps best experienced in the autumn, which marks the beginning of eel season, when the doors of the Manufactura de los Marinati (preserving factory) are flung open and visitors can feast on Comacchio’s local “gold.” Actress Sophia Loren famously danced around the space in the 1954 film “La Donna del Fiume” (The River Girl) as hundreds of eels roasted on spits in the background.
In Comacchio, eels were the major business and the large catches prompted the development of preservation methods that are still used today. Roasted then cooled, the pieces are placed in a simple brine of vinegar, water and bay leaf before being sealed in cans that still employ the original 1950s packaging design. In present times, eels are a staple for tourists, rather than for large-scale manufacturing. Sagra dell’Anguilla, the annual Eel Festival, begins in October and lasts for three weekends. Stalls pop up along the canals selling local delicacies and every restaurant has a special eel menu.
It is on the outskirts of Comacchio that fences made of reeds act as traps to catch the eel from the Po Delta. The flat surroundings, a stretch of fishing huts and old stone factories where fishermen once lived for weeks at a time, add to the ambience and reflect the locals’ straight-forward approach to preparing their treasured ingredient. Eel skin develops a beautiful crust when grilled, while the flesh underneath remains moist. Served with polenta, it is immediately evident why the combination has never changed.
Another perfect pairing uses wine vinegar. Used to preserve the eel, it is featured in the Bec d’Asan, a stew of tomato, onions, garlic and eel that translates to “donkey’s beak,” an Italian expression for a simple, fast process with great results. In total, it is said that there are nearly four dozen different eel recipes in the town.
If you are interested in visiting Comacchio, the next major event will take place in February, when the town stages its splendid celebration called Carnevale sull’Acqua. Its parade takes place on the water with boats called batana festively decorated and manned by masqueraded crews. Blasting music and confetti, they float down the town’s canals for the delight of the thousands of spectators.
Eel Recipes from Comacchio
Eel recipes have been a staple of Comacchio for centuries and although the town’s Sagra dell’ Anguilla is over for the year, it has provided recipes that fit in with the Feast of the Seven Fishes, which will be here before you know it.
Grilled Eel with Polenta
Eel is actually a freshwater fish rather than a water snake. In Emilia-Romagna, locals roast the fish over an open flame. It is important that the grill is not too high or hot; a moderate flame will ensure the eel cooks evenly to develop a pleasant crust.
2 1/2 lb eel fillets, cut into 3-inch pieces
2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
For the polenta
3 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil, divided, plus more for oiling the grill
1 tsp coarse salt
6 oz medium-grain polenta
2 oz ground buckwheat
Rub the eel fillets with the oil and season all over with salt and black pepper. Set aside.
To make the polenta, add 4 cups of water, 2 tablespoons of the olive oil and salt to a medium, heavy bottomed pot over medium-high flame; bring to a boil. Slowly whisk in the polenta and the buckwheat until no lumps remain. Lower the heat to a simmer and cook, whisking frequently until the polenta has thickened and the grains are tender, about 10 minutes. Pour the polenta onto a large rimmed baking sheet. Smooth the surface with a spatula and set aside to cool to room temperature.
Preheat the grill to cook over medium heat; lightly oil the grates. Once hot, add the eel, skin side down and cook until a crust has formed, about 8 minutes. Using tongs, flip the eel and continue cooking until the flesh is cooked through, about 7 minutes more. Transfer to a platter and turn the grill up to medium-high flame. Cut the polenta into 8 equal portions; rub them with the remaining oil. Grill, turning occasionally, until a delicate crust has formed, about 7 to 8 minutes per side. Transfer to the platter with the eel and serve hot.
This hearty fish stew, seasoned with wine vinegar, onions and tomato, is often served with creamy polenta.
Clean, skin and cut the eel into small chunks, about 2 inches each. In a large pan, add the olive oil and heat over a medium high flame. Add the chopped onion and sauté until softened and lightly browned, about 7 minutes. Stir in the tomato paste and vinegar and then top with eel pieces. Season with salt and pepper. Lower the heat to simmer, cover and cook, turning occasionally, until the eel is tender and flakey and the sauce has thickened slightly, 20 – 25 minutes.
Try the following recipe which would be a perfect addition to your Feast of the Seven Fishes on Christmas Eve.
2 1/2 pounds eel
3 cloves garlic
1/2 bay leaf per piece of eel
dash of fine sea salt, to taste
dash of freshly ground black pepper, to taste
2 tbsp olive oil, plus more for basting
1 tbsp white wine vinegar
salt and pepper to taste
vegetable oil, for frying
lemon wedges, for serving
Cut the eel into pieces about 3 inches. Rinse them with running water and dry them well. Crush the garlic cloves slightly with the flat side of a chef’s knife, peel and cut in half crosswise, then rub over the eel pieces with the cut side of the garlic cloves. Arrange in a shallow baking dish. Season the pieces with salt, pepper and drizzle of the olive oil and vinegar. Dot with small pieces of bay leaf. Allow to marinate for at least 1 hour.
Remove the eel from the marinade. Dredge in flour, shaking gently to remove any excess flour and fry the pieces in moderately hot oil until they are crisp and golden-brown on the outside. Drain the eel well on paper towels. Season to taste with coarse salt and freshly ground pepper. Serve with fresh lemon wedges.