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The smoked eel appetizer at The Old Fire Engine House in Ely, yours for just £8.95.
The smoked eel appetizer at The Old Fire Engine House in Ely, yours for just £8.95. (Ben Murray / S&S)

ELY — As the first forkful of eel made its way to my mouth, I couldn’t help but think of the words of the chef, a veteran eel-skinner who learned how to peel the skin off the finless fish from her mother when she was just a child.

“If you try to skin them before they’re cooked, they still wiggle they’ve got so many nerves,” she said. Dipping your hands in salt is a good way to get enough grip on the slippery, headless animals to slide a paring knife under their hide, she said. But it’s still hard to do correctly.

Luckily, the thin slab of cream-colored meat on the end of my tines doesn’t show any sign of movement as it approaches my lips. But its simple lack of motor function is still less than satisfying to someone who has never tried it before. This is a chunk of eel (eel!) on the fork, and I have no idea what it’s going to taste like.

I’m sitting in the bar section of The Old Fire Engine House in central Ely (pronounced eel-lee), a town that got its name from the profusion of eels that used to swim in the marshes once surrounding it. The town, it is said, used to literally be “eel-y.”

The Old Fire Engine House is a rather posh little establishment for such a small town, but I’m here because fresh eel is somewhat hard to come by during the cold months — even in Ely — and few restaurants have it on the menu. In the winter, said chef Terri Baker, they bury themselves in the mud and wait out the cold temperatures away from the hooks and nets of fishermen.

But the Engine House keeps a stock of smoked eel on hand, and it’s an enjoyable little place to try a new food. The restaurant is the former home of the town’s lone fire engine at the turn of the last century. It is small and intimate, with rough-hewn chairs and uneven, antique tables — heck, even the wooden pepper shakers look smoothed by years of wear.

Upstairs there’s a tea lounge and a small art gallery, where paintings and sculptures are for sale. Downstairs there is a tiny “bar” area off the main dining room, but it isn’t a place you’d waltz in for a pint. Outfitted with just three small tables and a couple of taps for the ale (the Adnams Bitter is fabulous) it’s really just a side room that can handle a couple of overflow customers.

I was sitting in that side room, however, when Baker brought out the source of my coming meal (an appetizer, actually, though an eel pie dinner is also on the menu occasionally): a fully-grown, decapitated eel.

Three-feet long and a sort of deep, maroon-brown color, the tubular, snake-like body was heavy and rubbery and completely unappealing to the unaccustomed eye.

Served in thin fillets with toast, lemon and some cold potato salad, however, it actually looks pretty appetizing on a plate, as harmless as any fish dish.

So, what’s it taste like?

Well, for the most part it’s a lot like lightly cooked tuna — “meaty” is the word Baker used to describe it. Dense and light, it doesn’t have the gelatinous consistency or fishy taste of many raw fish dishes, or the flakiness of smoked salmon.

“Smoked salmon is complete [expletive] when compared to smoked eel,” said one longtime Ely resident sitting in the bar.

All in all, it was pretty good, though you pay for every bite (the appetizer was 8.95 pounds).

Oddly enough, as hard as it is to look at in the skin, Ely-smoked eel is easy on the palate and can be a good introduction to the world of semi-cooked fish. Enjoy.

The Old Fire Engine House

Location: 25 St. Mary’s St. (It’s downtown, right across from the park.)

Drinks: A good assortment of wines and two ales on tap.

Food: Gourmet dishes, priced accordingly. The menu varies from dinner to lunch, and includes such items as the smoked salmon pâté (8.20 pounds) and pigeon and bacon casserole (15.50 pounds).

Ambiance: Upper crust and refined. The furniture is antique and delicate, and the art on the walls is for sale.

Service: Fabulous, but because it’s so small the tables can fill up fast.

www.theoldfireenginehouse.co.uk/

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