Issue No. 37: Smoked Eel

Let’s start off by addressing the elephant in the room. Eels get a bad rap. We think of them as slippery, ugly, mean, slimy, snaky. They’ve held an odd fascination for us since Aristotle’s time; he wrote that they emerged from earthworms. (They don’t—European and American eels all leave their homes to migrate thousands of miles to the Sargasso sea near Bermuda to mate.) But maybe that bad reputation is just a bunch of rumors started by the eel enthusiasts to keep more for themselves, because, let me tell you, eels can make for incredibly rich, luxurious eating.

Just ask the locals in Murtosa, Portugal.

Most of the year, Murtosa is a sleepy, seaside town of about 10,000. But it’s only about 45 minutes south of the city of Porto (famous for its historic role in Port wine production), and it’s happily situated on a beautiful, idyllic lagoon minutes away from the Atlantic coast, so in the summers Murtosa fills with beach-loving vacationers. The lagoon has always had eels and the locals gobble them up. When they’re fresh they eat them fried whole, and roasted in fillets. But there’s also a long history of preserving. Traditionally, they’d take a mess of eels, cut them into pieces, fry ’em up, and then place them in a wooden barrel and fill it with a vinegar-based marinade. The vinegar would essentially pickle the eels, allowing them to be kept without refrigeration. Today when you see fish served in escabeche sauce it’s the same thing.

Fast forward to World War II. While Portugal didn’t fight in the war, they were still involved in the war efforts. In 1942, a few entrepreneurs in Murtosa got together and started Comur, or Conservas da Murtosa. They packed up barrels of their fried, marinated eels and shipped them off to hungry soldiers.

The idea of using preserved fish as troop rations was hardly new. A century and a half earlier, Napoleon ran a contest to come up with a food to feed his armies and the winner was the guy who produced the first tinned sardines. But Comur is one of the only tinned fish companies to specialize in eels. After the war, business remained good, and seventy-some odd years later, Comur is still preserving eels with very little change in production.

Except for one big one. A few years after Comur opened its doors, a German emigrant arrived in Murtosa. Back home he had run a smoked fish business, and he met with the owners of Comur to pitch the idea of doing smoked fish in addition to marinated. They went for it, and soon they were producing a silky, tender, roasty, incredibly good smoked eel.

Comur is the only company in Portugal that smokes fish over wood.

Others sell “smoked” fish made with liquid smoke or other shortcuts. At Comur, smoking is done in a few walk-in closet-sized smokers. In the bottom of the smokers, oak logs are stoked until yellow and orange flames leap up several feet and create plenty of sweetly aromatic smoke. The eels, cut into six-inch pieces and placed by the dozens on thin metal grates stacked high on rolling metal racks, spend about twenty minutes in the smoker. When they come out, they’re golden brown and smell like the bacon of the sea.

Everyone who tins fish in Portugal is female.

After the eels come out of the smoker, they cool for half an hour. Then the workers—the staff is 100% women at every cannery I’ve visited in Portugal and Spain—peel off the skin of the eels in neat strips using a small knife. They remove the spines by hand, and then they cut the eels into fillets. Finally the tins are packed one by one, by hand, and then they’re filled with olive oil and sealed.

Why all women? I was told that since the work is so hands on and so careful—when you take the skin off an eel, for instance, you don’t want to tear off the meat as well—that women do a better job due to their smaller hands and more delicate touch. However, at other canneries I’ve seen workers stuff whole, giant cooked loins of tuna into a chute that grinds them up and splats them in chips into tins to the tune of 80,000 a day, and that not-so-delicate work is all done by women, too. I think it’s more a vestige of tradition, where men fished and women worked closer to home.

Freshly tinned eels are not better.

When I was at Comur, we did a little experiment. First we tasted some eels that had been tinned just a few days earlier. They were nicely smoky, flavorful, quite good. But then we opened a tin that had been made about nine months ago. The difference was incredible. The eels from the older tin were smoother and silkier in texture, with a richer, more complex, longer-lasting flavor. The extra time in the tin allowed the olive oil to better soak into the eel and let the flavors meld better, like how a stew is often better on the second day after it’s made. There was no contest, the older fish was much, much better. The same is true for sardines, tuna, just about any tinned fish except anchovies (which tend to get mealier with age).

When I asked how long was best, Comur’s general manager Nuno Pauseiro told me: “five years is very good. Ten years is excellent.” I don’t doubt that that’s true, but if you don’t want to wait that long, even a few months of aging can make a huge boost in flavor. Just store the tins in a cool spot like a pantry. If you did want to start a vintage collection, you might turn the tins over every year or two to help them age more evenly, but that’s all there is to it.

Four ways to serve tinned smoked eels next week (or next year):

1. Toss a tin over rice or couscous with a little lemon and parsley for a quick weeknight dinner.
2. Spread it over buttered toast with freshly cracked pepper and maybe some roasted peppers.
3. Stir it into a simple pasta dish with tomato sauce and capers.
4. Include a tin with a tapas spread of salami, olives, nuts, and a generous glass of Portuguese “green” wine—or port.