The eel-good factor


Along with mussels and stoverij, Belgians have another culinary surprise somewhat akin to Dr Seuss’ green eggs and ham. Paling in ’t groen, or eels in green sauce, is a speciality found in many restaurants and homes across Flanders. And wow, is it ever green.

In the second of our Flemish food speciality series, we checked out 22 tonnes of eel in Ternat

Along with mussels and stoverij, Belgians have another culinary surprise somewhat akin to Dr Seuss’ green eggs and ham. Paling in ’t groen, or eels in green sauce, is a speciality found in many restaurants and homes across Flanders. And wow, is it ever green.

The dish developed as many fisherman caught eels in the Scheldt River, with folklore stating that the dish should be prepared with whatever fresh herbs were found on the riverside. But to many connoisseurs, the sauce is what makes the dish unique.

Consisting mainly of the popular leafy green herb chervil as well as sorrel, it is important that these ingredients are added at the last moment of cooking so that sauce retains a bright green colour and the flavour is strong and fresh. The fish itself is white and meaty, with a pronounced flavour. Served chopped into five-centimetre chunks with the spine intact, one must eat slowly and carefully to avoid the many small bones.

The dish is found all over Flanders, but the eel itself is not. While Flanders, a notoriously damp, flat, canal-filled country, used to be ideal territory for eels, pollution in the Scheldt means any eels found in it are unfit for consumption. Eels eaten here are either imported or raised on an eel farm, such as the one you find, a bit surprisingly, in the industrial park of Ternat.

In between large corporate offices sits the Aalvis company, one of the original eel sellers in the country. The families of Van Overstraeten and Van Gaever opened a shop selling eels in Brussels in 1952, but before that they had a stall in the city’s fish market. Prior to that, they brought freshly-caught eels in from their small river town of Bassrode, now part of the municipality of Dendermonde.

Today the company is still family run, with Ronny Van Gaever, his brother-in-law Henk Ver Linde and younger brother Luc Van Gaever at the helm. “Baasrode, where my great grandparents came from, has a nickname for the people who live there: palingbotters, or eel catchers,” says Ronny. “We’ve been doing this for so long, that in the 1980s the company was recognised as having been eel sellers for over a century.”

The eel farm has 65 cement water reservoirs with a capacity for a whopping 22 tonnes of eel. Aalvis imports its eels from all over the world; they arrive in tanks or in special aerated, waterproof boxes. When moved to the cold, constantly running water, the fish will lose up to 10% of their body weight while waiting to be sold over the next one to three months, as eels won’t eat in captivity.

Anywhere from 100 to 150 tonnes of eel is processed at this plant every year. With an average of six to seven eels per kilo, a possible million eels are sold to restaurants, individuals and organisations that restock local rivers and lakes. Even though the 2,500 square-metre warehouse space is very much a working farm, Ronny and his brothers act like it’s a small shop, happy to sell a single kilogram to a customer or provide cooking advice. “Winter eels can be more fatty and should be boiled for 30 seconds to get rid of any greasy residue,” says Ronny. “Bigger eels are better for baking, smaller eels for frying.”

In addition to regular eel, Aalvis sells smoked eel, plus its homemade version of paling in ’t groen in one or one-half kilo portions. The sauce is so vibrant that the container is nearly glowing. When asked about the recipe, Ronny can barely understand the question, as it is not so much a recipe as a part of his history. “I know it by heart. I grew up with it. I don’t need to think about it.”

Aalvis only imports and sell wild adult eels. “Farmed eels are tougher and have a lot more fat,” explains Ronny. “Not only does wild eel taste better, farming eels is not sustainable.” Since eels don’t reproduce in captivity (the reproduction of eels is still a bit of a mystery), eels are caught young for aquaculture (or aquafarming).

Eels begin their slippery baby life as flat, transparent larvae, which then turn into “glass eels”, before evolving into young eels known as elvers, then finally into adult eels.

Eel aquaculture became necessary in 1997, as the European demand for eels could not be met, for the first time ever. The problem is that glass eels are harvested along the Atlantic coast in river estuaries and placed in captivity, never being returned to the wild. Because they are taken before they’re able to breed, this is an unsustainable long-term practice.

However, there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight because glass eels fetch a price comparable to caviar on the market. From 1995 to 2005, the EU estimates that a half billion baby eels were exported to Asia. In 2007, the European eel was classified as a protected species by CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species). Aalvis is working with Friends of the Sea and the Marine Stewardship Council to create consumer labels that indicate that the eel is wild and farmed in its natural season. “All fish have a season, so it is imperative that each country stops fishing for wild eel for a few months of the year,” explains Ronny. “That’s why sometimes we have eels from Ireland and other times from New Zealand. We follow the natural cycle of the eel.”

Wild eel imported by Aalvis can be ordered at a number of Flemish restaurants, or you can stop by the farm and meet one of the friendly proprietors – and perhaps get a sneak peek at the hundreds of thousands of eels waiting to be dinner.

Eating eel out

Several restaurants in Flanders use Aalvis-imported wild eel

De Groenendijk in Bornem, in the far west of Antwerp province, is a white brick restaurant on the banks of the River Scheldt. The building dates from 1672 and the fourth generation of the Joos family now runs the restaurant, which has been operating since 1920. The bric-à-brac filled interior is pure Belgian, and the menu is replete with classics such as wild rabbit, partridge, pheasant and, of course paling in ’t groen. If you’re not quite ready to commit, you can order a half serving as a starter.

Right on the Dutch border in East Flanders, you find a number of small towns, such as Watervliet and Sint-Jan-in-Eremo, that have casual cafes serving authentic, classic Flemish dishes. In the latter village, you’ll find Polderzicht, which serves up an amazing variety of eel – in cream sauce, green sauce, tomato sauce, shrimp sauce, crayfish sauce, Provençal sauce, with Hoegaarden and even grootmoeders wijze, or grandmother’s way.

Restaurant Siphon near the pretty town of Damme in West Flanders is famous for being one of Flanders’ oldest eel restaurants, with more than 100 years of experience. One must book well in advance to get a table overlooking the tree-lined canal. Even better, you can arrive with your own cooking pots, which they fill up with eel to heat at home, a surprising and yet traditional version of take away.

The eel-good factor

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