Elvers - a county delicacy not to everyone’s taste
HAVE you ever eaten elvers? The question was prompted by leafing through the pages of a book titled Fishing on the Lower Severn, published by Gloucester City Museum in 1974 and written by the curator John Neufville Taylor.
These days elvers are an endangered species and in the unlikely event you find them on a menu in a restaurant anywhere they will be an eye-watering price.
But in the past a plateful of the little wrigglers was a cheap treat for working people in Gloucestershire and could be bought for a few coppers from local fishmongers.
In February, March and April in days gone by, fisherfolk disappeared to the Severn at dead of night.
Picking a favoured spot on the bank, a lamp was set down to attract the young eels, then the waiting began.
If elvers arrived, they were scooped from the water using a net of cheesecloth and carried home in a bucket, usually on the handlebars of a bicycle.
Traditionally there were two ways to cook elvers.
They could be boiled until they turned from their usual translucent grey to white.
But the tastier method was to fry a rasher or two of fat bacon and hoik in the live wee eels, crack an egg into the morass, stir, add seasoning and gorge.
Elvers were never a meal for the faint hearted and the Gloucester Journal’s Susan Severn, writing in 1965, was plainly not a fan.
She wrote “Even the most ardent elver enthusiast couldn’t faithfully say they look very lovely.
“To look in your frying pan and see your dinner squirming about with what appears like thick saliva cannot be very appetising.
“And a mass of white worms on a plate might not be everyone’s idea of gastronomic bliss”. She had a point.
If elvers are a seasonal delight you’ve occasionally enjoyed in years past, these recollections taken from Gloucestershire Within Living Memory, published in 1996 by the Gloucestershire Federation of Women’s Institutes, may be to your taste.
“Elvers - the fry of the European eel have always been a delicacy in Gloucestershire.
“My mother used to buy them for 6d a pint pot, clean them at the pump and dry them off in a clean towel.
“Sometimes my mother beat up an egg and stirred this into the elvers as they were cooking.
“As the season wore on the elvers developed a black line and then my father wouldn’t eat them.
“In the season men used to come round Maisemore with their buckets full of elvers and sell them, or give them away if there was a glut.
They used to be sold from tin baths and to indicate they were available a tea towel was put over the back of a dining chair outside the front door.
“I can remember my great aunt making elver pie in the 1950s. It was made of shortcrust pastry and the filling contained bacon, eggs, herbs, onions and, of course, elvers. It could be eaten hot or cold in slices”.
In Victorian times an Act was passed banning elvering and Severnside fisherfolk were up in arms about this seasonal – and free - addition to their daily diet being denied them.
Many flouted the new law and some
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when caught suffered heavy fines and spells in Gloucester jail.
Old reports describe the mass of elvers swimming upstream in season being so great that the whole river looked to be a single, sinewy snake of silver.
Tons of elvers were taken, principally on the stretch of Severn between Gloucester and Tewkesbury.
Many will remember that as late as the 1980s there was an annual elver eating competition staged at the Bell in Frampton on Severn.
But those days are long gone. The Severn and Wye Smokery at Chaxhill is one of the organisations doing sterling conservation work to try and save elvers from becoming no more than a memory. Let’s hope their efforts are successful.
Incidentally, if you’re wondering what an elver becomes in later life, take a look at the picture of David Thomas and Nigel Longney who were snapped by the Citizen’s photographer in October 1968 with a whopping adult eel they pulled from the Severn outside the Anchor pub at Epney.
Fishing for elvers on the River Severn
An elver-eating contest at the Bell Inn, Frampton-on-severn
David Thomas and Nigel Longney with an adult eel they pulled from the Severn