The eel odyssey

In Puglia, discovering the incredible journey of an extraordinary fish, a Christmas protagonist

Roasted eels and stewed red Acquaviva onions, with

Roasted eels and stewed red Acquaviva onions, with a salmoriglio sauce made with capers, cherry tomatoes al filo*, lemon zest and freshly pressed extra virgin olive oil from Donato Vinci’s inn Tempio dei Gusti in Fasano (Brindisi), tel. +39.080.4393838

Christmas is coming and we can already smell the scent of the laurel leaves burnt on the slack. We’re in Fasano, at Donato Vinci’s inn Tempio dei Gusti, tel. +39.080.4393838, for a rare food: wild local eel, fished from a small river by Vito and his son Paolo in Torre Canne, in the province of Brindisi. The chef has roasted the eel in a wood oven, using a spit of dry but very aromatic wild fennel. The scent is exciting, it makes you recall keeping company with one’s grandfather, as a child, while he was roasting outside, on the slack.

Why is this a “rare” food? According to Cites, eel is in “critical danger”, that is one step before extinction. Those of which we speak today are not farmed animals, but wild ones, fished every year, in this period, by the fishermen of three small spring-water lakes in Torre Canne. Every year these teleost fishes return, just like in the nearby and larger lakes of Lesina and Varano.

Vito e Paolo Sacco, father and son, eel fishermen

Vito e Paolo Sacco, father and son, eel fishermen

Every eel is born in the Sargasso Sea, between the Greater Antilles and the Azores, close to the famous Bermuda Triangle. New-born, they start a very long journey to return where their mothers lived. It’s an incredible and still mysterious instinct, but it has been proved that every eel born from a mother who lived in Puglia will know how to reach its place of origin, and will then stay there even 9-11 years. Having reached sexual maturity, eels will resume their journey and return to the Sargasso Sea, where they will reproduce and die. In fact, each eel produces a very large number of eggs in order to be certain that some of them will be able to travel so far and ensure they have offspring.

The three rivers in Torre Canne don’t have a real spring: they are very short streams, fuelled by citri, spring-water sources that flow from the sea. They are locally known as “the waters of Christ”. The Morelli, Piccolo and Grande rivers are part of the Parco delle dune costiere (Park of the coastal dunes), thus called thanks to the presence of some beautiful fossil dunes, between 500 and 1.000 years old (it’s forbidden to climb on them!).

For generations, the very few fishermen who keep this tradition have been organised in order to fish only the adult male specimen, that is the smaller eels. The large eels, called capitoni (contrary to the Italian masculine name, these are the females) are spared, so they can guarantee the reproduction, the life-cycle and thus fishing in the future. A series of bridges and a sophisticated system of locks dating back to the Nineteenth century, allows the fishermen to fish with specific bulrush pots, created for the purpose of keeping the larger animals and leaving the very small ones, the “ceche”, free.

In these beautiful bodies of water, you can also fish the delicious golden grey mullets, also known as the “golden earing mullets” due to the typical yellow mark on the head, their identification mark. Inside the park it is possible to spot many migratory birds such as coots, herons and ducks. The Mediterranean flora is luxuriant and between the mastic shrubs and the canes you can discover rare and ancient junipers, like the very aromatic 300 year old specimen that our highly knowledgeable guide Maria Lucrezia Colucci pointed out.

*cherry tomatoes al filo are tomatoes that are kept hanging on a piece of string (filo) throughout the winter. It is an ancient way of preserving tomatoes common in Southern Italy. [TN]

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