They are recognised as amongst the finest eels in the world for eating and are caught and processed by the last commercial wild eel fishery in Europe. No wonder Lough Neagh eels have been awarded the highly prestigious PGI [Protected Geographical Indication] status, which puts them in the same bracket as Champagne.
The famous eels of Lough Neagh [the largest freshwater lake in the UK and Ireland] are thought to have been first eaten by locals as far back as the Bronze Age and have been a staple catch of the area’s fishermen for many centuries. As long ago as the 6th century monks set eel traps in the lough using lines as long as six miles with hundreds of individually baited hooks.
For centuries the Lough Neagh fisheries were under the control of the great Gaelic chieftains before passing to various aristocrats but in the early 1960s, local priest Father Oliver Kennedy began a long battle to win the rights for a co-operative of local fishermen who used traditional methods to catch eels.
The famous eels of Lough Neagh are thought to have been first eaten by locals as far back as the Bronze Age and have been a staple catch of the area’s fishermen for many centuries.
Today the Lough Neagh Fishermen’s Co-operative catches and processes the eels, most of which end up in Holland, London pie and mash shops (as jellied eels) and some of Europe’s finest restaurants.
According to John Mathers, who runs the award-winning ‘Newforge House’ guesthouse with his wife Lou, the best eels in the world are finally being appreciated at home. ‘In the last few years local restaurants and hotels here are realising just how good the food produced in this area is, and the eels are a big part of that,” he says. “They come already smoked, which gives them a wonderful, earthy flavour. Some of our guests are a little tentative if they haven’t tried them before but they can’t believe how good they taste.’
‘I serve them with hot smoked salmon and a panna cotta of fresh cream and home grown horse radish with pickled shallots and mixed leaves. The smoked eels have a high fat content which adds to the flavour.’
Lough Neagh has another unique jewel to offer to the increasing numbers of visiting foodies to the area. Pollan, only found in five Irish lakes, were originally a seawater fish that were trapped in the lough during the Ice Age. Millions of years later these now freshwater fish are a prized local delicacy. They are delicious rolled in oatmeal and simply fried in butter.
John Mathers serves freshly caught Pollan to his guests when available. ‘I keep it simple and let the unique taste shine through,’ he says. ‘Just pan sear the fish and simmer in lemon and herb butter or a cream sauce. Delicious!’