Conger eel for Christmas, or how an eccentric laird’s plans went horribly wrong amid a shower of blood

Joe Gibbs recounts a dinner party which he will never forget. And neither will you.

Before Christmas, a seasonal invitation blew in on the west wind from the Lovelorn Laird. It was a summons to a pow-wow in his mountain fastness on the 33rd of the month, a date that I felt was stretching the elasticity of time even for a West-Coaster.

The laird wanted to run past me the menu for an alternative Christmas lunch designed for the times we live in. The bird-flu hullabaloo, its super-inflationary effect on turkey prices, plus punitive extra costs of haulage to the north-west had forced him to explore radical innovation for his festive meal. And I mean radical. Not for him the traditional alternative of goose or fowl. Not even roadkill venison with pickled dulse. No, on this the greatest of feast days in the Christian calendar, he proposed to serve the family yuletide conger eel, a food even ruled out for consumption by the chosen people in the Old Testament (Leviticus 11, v 9–12), although, I grant you, without a stain on its rep in the New.

In general, my taste in food is plain and unadventurous, but there have been times when I’ve explored more obscure culinary byways. From the order of Anguilliformes I’ve sampled smoked eel in St James’s and jellied eel in a Wandsworth Bridge Road eel-and-pie shop. When really pushing the envelope, I’ve eaten my wife’s homemade bread — consistency of concrete, but no ill effects if the teeth survive — a neighbour’s kombucha (stay within easy reach of a public convenience) and, my cherry on the top, a very chewy goat’s eye in Istanbul. But I’ve never done conger.

“Even the resident rat, grown quite gregarious and part of the family of late, ducked back into his hole under the sink”

The one in question was trapped in the laird’s lobster pot. Strictly speaking, it should be termed ‘bycatch’, but there wasn’t a lobster present at the time. If you’ve ever tried to kill a 3ft eel, you’ll know it’s easier to speak to an electricity-supply customer services adviser. The laird thought he’d dispatched it with the chopper, but decapitation, it seems, is not enough. As the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail would say: ‘Tis but a scratch.’

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Spurting blood like the good knight, the headless version took off around the kitchen in pursuit of Wesley the pug. The pug, snorting with terror, blundered into table legs, attempting to run at the same time as looking back over his shoulder, not a procedure in the operating manual for pugs.

Even the resident rat, grown quite gregarious and part of the family of late, ducked back into his hole under the sink. Pots and pans hurtled everywhere and, at last, the laird quelled the monster with a flying tackle that would have raised the roof at Murrayfield.

Despite the current absence of conger from the UK’s mainstream diet, there are quite a few recipes to render it nearly edible. Rick Stein and the late Keith Floyd both have ideas on the subject, and the meat has long been a major ingredient in Provençal bouillabaisse. However, watch out for eel blood, which is fatally poisonous to humans and other mammals. Just imbibing the smallest amount can arrest the human heart. Both the laird and Wesley had to be deep-cleaned after their bloody struggle on the kitchen floor.

The eventual dish, cooked to the laird’s own interpretation of Rick with a dash of Floyd, was short of sensational, although, on the rare occasion when you weren’t eating bones, it tasted quite like monkfish. In line with revenge being a dish best eaten cold, the pug rather relished finishing off the substantial de-boned leftovers.

More conventional plans were laid for Christmas lunch.

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