CHEFS, it's time to get your opinions

We've missed a newsletter, but maybe that’s no great disaster. It’s certainly not because there hasn't been anything happening. With the salmon season well and truly over, waders have been exchanged for tweed and ridiculously priced long socks with fancy ribbons, which has meant birds in large numbers have been dropping out of the sky. Going back to the price of a pair of shooting socks and garters, the current price at Farlows, the Holy Grail for fishing and shooting, is £65 a pair. I have a theory that significant funds are syphoned off from sock sales to a secret benevolent fund that supports shooting estate owners fallen on hard times.

I used to own several pairs many years ago that I kept in a bottom draw with a pair of plus-fours, a masonic apron and regalia (belonged to my father) and several Hawaiian shirts. Soon after marrying Elizabeth they all mysteriously disappeared. We've never talked about it but it probably wasn't a good idea to have them all in the same drawer together.

The UK oyster season is also well and truly upon us and I was honoured to be invited to judge at this year’s British Oyster Championships tasting awards. This is now an annual event held at Boisdale restaurant in Canary Wharf and this year the judging panel had swelled to a band of over 35, made up of food writers, chefs, restaurateurs and fish wholesalers. Over 1,500 oysters had been sourced by Wright Brothers and with 16 different Rock and 4 native varieties to judge we had quite an enjoyable but tough task to complete. The winner of the best Rock was the Porthilly Camel oyster grown in beds in the Camel Estuary, a short distance away from Rick Stein’s home in Padstow. Not altogether unsurprisingly the natives all scored higher than the rocks and the winner here was the Helford Native regarded by the late Keith Floyd as his favourite oyster. A special thanks to our host at Boisdale, Ranald Macdonald, who put on a wonderful judges’ lunch and to Justerini & Brooks for matching wines for the judging and the lunch after. I believe much debating went on regarding the merits and relative strengths of French versus English oyster producers which may have instigated plans for a future France vs GB grand tasting to find an ultimate winner. Rule Britannia I say.

One of the most satisfying days of the year was our final eel release day at Llangorse Lake three weeks ago. It has now become an annual event and we treat it as a celebration of another successful ‘Eels in Schools’ campaign. When over 30 boys from The Grange in Monmouth arrived, we already had a BBQ on the go with bacon and sausage rolls to kick off the day. After a briefing on how we would be conducting the restocking we split into teams of five so as everyone had a chance to do some restocking from one of the boats we were using. Our friends from UK Glass Eels who have been helping feed and look after the fish were also in attendance. These fish that had weighed about .25 to .30 of a gram earlier in the year had grown and fed incredibly well. Many now over 10 grams. We estimate that we probably restocked over 25,000 eels that morning. This has been the 3rd year that a significant number of eels have been used to restock the lake. Locals report that for the first time in over 20 years they are seeing numbers of good sized eels swimming into the shallows in the early mornings. Once the restocking was over it was back to the BBQ for lunch and Tania cooked a great array of smoked eel dishes that the boys were keen to sample. It is important that the children learn that sustainability (a word that is often mis-used) means it is possible by managing, in this case a local fishery correctly and ethically to provide a social and economic resource for present and future generations. Since we started over 3 years ago we have restocked well over 350,000 eels back to the wild. The problem we have is that very few people, even those in the fish business, don’t really understand what they should be looking for to be able to buy eel ethically and with confidence.

So, imagine my dismay on Sunday to read in AA Gill’s column that "’apparently some drip-nosed scarf wearing adenoidally droning nail-bitten pressure group called something like Hug a hake or The Fishy Peoples Liberation faction of the sea, or Sea you Jimmy" had threatened Jeremy Lee of Quo Vadis with a maelstrom of bad internet reviews unless he removes eel from the menu. As AA Gill also pointed out, we had another huge increase in elver numbers last year. This year’s fishing season in France started on the 15th November and stopped after 8 days as the quota was satisfied. Last year it took 6 weeks and the year before 12, so a serious recovery in elver numbers is already taking place. What people don’t realise is that the elver fishing effort in the UK is a hand net fishery which translates into a fisherman standing in the dark with a long pole with a net on the end. The fishing effort is tide dependant, so at best he can fish only 5 days out of 14. Jeremy Lee’s dilemma at Quo Vadis is that every supplier of smoked eel is claiming to supply a sustainable product. Unfortunately this isn't so. We have therefore devised a very short questionnaire (please see link below) that we would like any chef or person interested in buying eel to fill in. In it are some of the questions that you should be asking your supplier. We promise that your answers will be in strictest confidence and will not be used to solicit business. On completion we will send you some answers and facts to the questionnaire that may help you decide how you source your eel.

Sustainable Eel Survey

I should of course be banging on about what a fantastic array of products , hampers and Christmas goodies we have that can be couriered to anywhere in the UK , but if you've forgotten give Claire in the office a call - she’s full of good advice and ideas.

More importantly, have a wonderful Happy Christmas and New Year from all of us at Severn and Wye.