Angulas are 2 inch baby eels, known in English as elvers, are one of the most traditional and controversial dishes within Basque gastronomy. For centuries they have been scooped out at nightfall once they leave their sandy hiding places from the mouth of rivers through a dragging method using a fine metallic mesh and lots and I mean lots of patience. These white squirmy creatures must be kept alive in fresh water tanks for about a week until their backs turn black. Since a dead eel won’t turn in colour, the black colour on their backs will assure the buyer that the eels were taken alive. Tobacco is then used as the toxic to kill our little friends quickly and ready for their sale. The common Atlantic eel that lives in many American and European rivers is born in the warm waters between Puerto Rico and Bermuda, an area known as the Sargasso Sea. At about 10 years of age, eels leave their rivers and return to their birthplace to spawn and then die. Up to 20 million eggs are left to their own destiny, floating in the Atlantic and taking them up to a year to reach North American coast and about 3 years to cross the Atlantic and reach European shores. Drifting in currents until they find the mouths of fresh water rivers where they transform into tiny almost translucent elvers and swim in with the tide. A true mammoth journey. Angulas have created lots of controversy throughout the years based on sceptical thoughts on their taste, to the look of them by those who find them repulsive, to their price, especially their price. Also treated as a delicacy in the Far East, in the Basque country during peak festivities like Christmas or the evening before San Sebastian celebrates their patron’s day, baby eels can reach more than 1,000€ per kilo. One kilo will conservatively provide 6 portions of the classic dish, so if you do the maths, these little creatures are the sea’s white truffle! The main reason for their sky high price is the small amount of catches against demand, pollution and a smaller numbers of larvae completing their journey. Villages like Aguinaga a few kilometres outside of San Sebastian, where eel families have fished for centuries admit that the future of eels seem questionable since most of the elvers that they don’t catch quickly die in the river. Even in the UK, river patrols where organised by police to stop fishermen in Somerset from using illegal methods to net elvers, lowering stocks in the River Parrett, all with the purpose of selling them for big dinero. In addition, in the last ten years a clever substitute to the real baby eel has been developed through the use of Japanese surimi fish and squid ink. The product is widely available in Spanish supermarkets and comes at a fraction of the price, making those who are privileged enough to eat the real deal to look into those tiny black eyes more deeply.
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