Eel swim thousands of miles from their birthplace in the Sargasso Sea (off the American coast) to the rivers of Europe. In Italy they are found at the mouth of the river Po, in the Tiber, and in Sicily and Sardinia. A favourite Roman recipe at Christmas is capitone, a mature female eel which is cut into chunks, marinated and cured in oil, vinegar and herbs, then grilled over charcoal. This recipe is using smaller eels and reversing the process, frying the eel chunks first, then marinating them. Marinated fish are popular in Italy and are usually eaten at the start of the meal as an antipasto. Eels are most often sold live, although they are sometimes available as steaks. A live eel is quite something to manage, so ask your fishmonger for advice. There are serious concerns surrounding the sustainability of eels, both wild and farmed (as even these are raised from wild elvers).
2 kg medium eel, heads off, cleaned and cut into 10 cm chunks
Plain flour, for coating
Salt and freshly grounded black pepper
150 ml olive oil
4 -5 garlic cloves, sliced
6 tbsp white wine vinegar
A hanful of mint leaves
Put the chunks of eel in a plastic bag with a bit of flour, salt and pepper. Close with your hand and shake to coat. Remove the eel from the bag, shaking off any surplus flour.
Heat half the oil in a large frying pan. Add the eel and fry, in batches if necessary, until brown on all sides. Remove from the oil and drain on kitchen paper. Place on a glass or china serving dish.
Remove the oil from the pan and wipe it out with kitchen paper. Add the remaining oil and heat gently. Add the garlic and fry until soft but not browned. Pour in the vinegar, and season with salt and pepper. Leave to cool.
When the oil and vinegar mixture is cool, add the mint leaves. Pour over the eel and leave to marinate for at least 5-6 hours, preferably overnight, turning from time to time. Serve cold.