Eels are present in many types of Italian cuisine because they can be prepared in so many ways. This fish has some strange characteristics which distinguish it from all other types of fish. Its size is different depending on the sex. The females, which as adults are called "capitone," reach a weight of 4 to 5 kilos (9 to 11 lbs). The males, however, almost never reach a length of more than 46 centimetres (18 inches) or a weight of more than half a kilo (1 lb). They prefer to live in the sea or in pools of brackish water, but they can be found even 200 kilometres upstream of the mouth of a river. Eels are carnivores and voracious. They love to sink into the mud at the bottom of the water and rub against it, but they can survive for a number of days in dry conditions. They reproduce in the sea. At the age of sexual maturity - in the autumn, rarely in the spring - they change colour (in fact the abdominal region takes on a silvery white colour) and they descend into the sea, never returning to fresh water. The larva of the eel has a compact and transparent body, with almost no pigment (elver or capillary). From the sea the elvers migrate to the mouths of rivers and they go upstream with the current. They spread out in the inland waters where they continue the cycle until sexual maturity finally urges them back to the sea.
There is a theory which indicates that the Sargasso Sea is the place where all European and American eels reproduce. This theory is interesting since, if it were true, every eel would cross the Atlantic Ocean twice in its lifetime.
Eels are highly valued in cooking. In Piedmont they are part of a tradition which goes back to at least the beginning of the eighteenth century, since Giovanni Vialardi (head chef to Carlo Alberto and Vittorio Emmanuele II) left us two recipes in his treatise, published in Turin in 1854. These recipes include essential elements for the cuisine of Piedmont.
Here is the recipe for "Filetti d'anguilla panati con salsa di tomatiche" (Breaded Eel Fillets with Tomato Sauce). "Clean and marinate an eel, cut it in half length-wise, cleaned of its bones. Cut it into pieces 6 centimetres (2 ½ inches) long, soak in beaten egg mixed with parsley, minced garlic, salt, pepper and spices, and cover with breadcrumbs. Place in a pan or pot with melted butter and allow to fry slowly. When the pieces are cooked in the centre and have taken on colour on both sides, serve them on a plate on top of tomato puree or with sour minced mushrooms." And here is another recipe. "Prepare the fillets as above, dredge them in flour, put them in a pan with melted butter and fry them over high heat. When they have taken on a light colour, add some parsley and minced garlic, 30 grams (1 oz) of white truffle, half a cup of Madera wine, salt, pepper and the juice of one lemon. When they are cooked, after have turned them carefully without breaking them, place them on a plate with the sauce and serve them." This recipe calls for truffles which, once upon a time, were not as terribly expensive as they are today. Truffles appeared in the cuisine of Piedmont in many dishes, in combinations which might seem audacious.
Here is another traditional recipe, still used today for the preparation of this strange and fascinating fish.
"Anguilla alle erbe fini" (Eel with Fine Herbs). " Clean and cut the eel into pieces 6 to 7 centimetres (2 ½ to 3 inches) long, sauté them in a pan with a good amount of oil, bay leaf and a chopped onion. Dry off the excess oil with absorbent paper and set the eel aside in a warm place. Prepare a "green bath" in the following manner: Chip a large bunch of parsley (if tender you can also include the stems) with a few sage leaves, some spring onions (the white and green parts) and some cloves of garlic. To add some more green to the mixture, add a celery heart, a handful each of spinach and swiss chard. Wilt these fragrant greens for five minutes with some oil, butter and lard, then add two spoonfuls of chopped capers, a fine chop of marjoram, time and wild mint, two or three spoonfuls of tomato sauce and two or three fresh anchovies, just de-salted. When the anchovies have softened, place the pieces of eel in the sauce, add half a cup of water, adjust the salt and pepper and finish the cooking. There should be abundant, light green in colour, not overcooked, and you should be able to dip bread or polenta into it."