While trawling through the archives at the Croydon Local Studies Library recently, I made a delightful discovery that immediately brought the Vintage Cookbook Trials to mind. I had actually been looking for information on Jay’s Furnishing Stores, a chain of hire-purchase furniture shops that operated in the UK during the 20th century — but to my surprise, nestled among the cuttings of newspaper adverts offering “guaranteed delivery” and “the Best Terms in the World” was a small booklet entitled “20 Ways of Cooking Fish”.
Published by Jay’s at an unspecified date (though an anonymous hand has written “prob 1932” on the back), this booklet contains recipes written by a Monsieur X M Boulestin, billed as “The Worlds [sic] Greatest Cookery Expert”. [Editor’s note: He definitely knew what to do with potatoes.] The rather tenuous connection between furniture sales and fish is supported by a short statement on the front cover: “Our object has always been a double one – to supply the Best Value in Fine Furniture and to ensure a Happy Home to each of our customers – by freedom from worry – Every housewife knows what part cooking plays in making a happy home.
Flipping through the recipes, I was briefly tempted by Cod Normande (featuring cider, parsley, shallots, and mushrooms) and Skate with Caper Sauce (which involves cooking the skate along with some of its liver plus cloves, parsley, thyme, bay leaves, and vinegar). However I thought the cod dish might be a bit boring, and I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to get skate liver; indeed, I hadn’t previously known they even had livers. So I eventually settled on Eels Landaises, a lightly stewed dish of eels with red wine and prunes.
The author states that this recipe comes from “the Landes”, which Wikipedia tells me might refer to several places in France, but I suspect the most likely is the département of Landes itself, particularly as Wikipedia also tells me that M Boulestin had his own holiday home there. I found some interesting pages online while investigating further: Landais Folklore discusses the customs and geography of the area, and Landais Gastronomy discusses the food, mentioning eels among other things.
Take two or three moderate-sized eels
M Boulestin notes that some people consider eels “rather an alarming fish” (an observation borne out by my own experiences of telling people I was planning to cook this dish), but I quite like them. I get mine from the fishmonger on Church Street in Croydon, an excellent place where they have a very precise eye for cutting fish to order (I once asked for 300g of salmon and the piece they cut came out as exactly 300g on the scales; I nearly gave them a round of applause).
For this recipe I decided to use some eel pieces that I had a vague memory of stashing in the freezer after a change of dinner plans a few months ago. Upon defrosting it became clear that there was much less of it than I’d thought — a single thick slice weighing 350g (12oz). However, I suspected this wasn’t from the type of eel M Boulestin had in mind, as going by the diameter of my piece, two or three whole eels this large would have served at least twenty people. So I decided to press on anyway.
skin them, cut them in pieces about three inches long and roll them in flour. Cook them in olive oil; when they are nearly cooked, remove them
I just cooked my piece whole, and didn’t skin it either. I probably used about 1 Tbsp of plain flour to coat it, though it didn’t all stick. Aiming for a bit of a crust (this didn’t entirely work), I fried the eel for 10 minutes on each side, for a total of 20 minutes — obviously with smaller pieces you probably wouldn’t want to cook them for quite this long.
and fry in the same oil two or three onions and one clove of garlic, cut in slices;
I used half a small onion (around 75g/2½ oz) and two cloves of garlic, because I like garlic. Incidentally, if you’re wondering why the sliced garlic cloves look circular in the photo, that’s because I used garlic that I grew in my garden and pulled up before it had divided into cloves, because I was impatient and wanted to use the pot for something else.
when these are brown, add salt and pepper, one tumbler of red wine and a cup of stock, then about a dozen fine prunes, stoned and previously soaked in wine (you use the wine for the dish as directed above),
I used 125ml (4.5 fl oz) red wine, 125ml stock, and 6 prunes. The stock was proper home-made stock, made from an “old hen” and some pork bones, simmered over very low heat for 8 hours. I do this about twice a year, then freeze the stock in 60ml (4 Tbsp) portions for use in Chinese cooking. It’s very gelatinous, which I thought would be good in this dish because the sauce has no thickening agent.
bring to the boil, let it simmer about twenty minutes so that it is sufficiently reduced, and ten minutes before serving put in the pieces of eel which you have meanwhile kept hot. Serve with croûtons around the dish.
It wasn’t entirely clear whether M Boulestin wanted me to simmer this for 20 minutes total, or for 20 minutes without the eel and then another 10 minutes after adding it. In any case, I simmered it for about 15 minutes total, with the eel going in about halfway through when I judged the sauce was about halfway reduced enough. Only the bottom half-centimetre of my gigantic chunk of eel was actually in contact with the sauce anyway, so I got a dessertspoon and started basting.
I served it with boiled sweet potatoes rather than croûtons, because I had some in the fridge left over from a couple of nights previously, and they needed using up.
Would I make it again? Possibly. The sauce was very slightly too tart on its own, but made a good counterbalance to the sweetness of the prunes. The flavour of the sauce didn’t penetrate the eel at all, but that might have worked better if I’d skinned it and used smaller pieces. I also didn’t think there was really enough sauce — although I halved the sauce ingredients, I more-than-halved the eel, and the sauce-to-eel ratio still felt a little scant.
- Eels from Fresh Fish of Croydon and Surrey, 25 Church Street, Croydon, CR0 1RH
- Wine from Good Taste, 28 Westow Hill, Crystal Palace, SE19 1RX
- Prunes from Authentic Roots, 96 High Street, Croydon, CR0 1ND
- Pork bones and hen (for stock) from Wing Yip, 544 Purley Way, Croydon, CR0 4NZ
- Garlic from my garden. I have no idea where the onion came from.