Smoked eel, sourdough bread, horseradish cream, mustard, butter and a spoonful of pickled red onions – a refreshingly short list of ingredients for a recipe that’s lauded across London as one of the shining examples of British cuisine. Jeremy Lee’s Smoked eel sandwich is a favourite of food critics and regulars at his Soho-based restaurant Quo Vadis, where the simple dish celebrates the quality of the ingredients on the plate. ‘For a humble sandwich, it was the most unforeseen thing,’ says Jeremy, who first came up with it whilst working at The Blueprint Café in the Design Museum.
Smoked eel isn’t an ingredient you can easily find in the shops. In fact, it was quite the speciality. ‘There was a man called Mr Beale who had a small business called Beale’s Eels up in Lincolnshire,’ explains Jeremy. ‘They were the traditional eels from the Fens – light, intact and a far greater luxury than salmon (and per pound much more expensive). No one really understood the eel – it was a curious thing that swam from the Fens to the Wide Sargasso Sea and back to spawn. Arch-foodies loved it, and when you introduced people to its flavour they were amazed, because all they knew beforehand was jellied eels from pie shops in the East End. In London you had to go to Chinatown to get one – they would take it out of the tank and literally batter the living daylights out of it, throwing it from wall to wall, which isn’t a way you normally see your dinner prepared.
‘Unfortunately, Mr Beale suffered a stroke and consequently sold his company to a Dutch couple – Wilhelm and Corine Rozendaal – who renamed it The Dutch Eel Co and introduced all the esteemed Dutch practices of preparing and smoking eels, preserving what is arguably the last sole eel-based business in the country,’ he continues. ‘We bought eels from them all the time, getting a fresh delivery every Monday.’
The eels Jeremy was buying in didn’t go into a sandwich straight away. ‘I used to do a dish of potato pancake, horseradish cream, smoked eel, bacon and a poached egg – it was heavenly,’ he says. ‘But now and again it might not sell so well or we’d have a few eels too many in the fridge, and we were wondering what to do with it. It was too expensive to be casual with, and when we added it to salads it seemed a bit disingenuous as the eel flavour got lost among the vinegars and mustards. It wasn’t elegant enough.’