Thursday, February 17, 2011

Lizard Fish and Moray Eels


Lizard Fish

        I've chosen the following excerpts from Alan Davidson's Mediterranean Seafood both because of the fascinating information they convey and because, while reading through the text today and re-viewing Thao Soun Vannithone's remarkable illustrations, I remembered more than I had recently how much this book has meant to me and how many important memories it relates to or has inspired.

        When Auberon Waugh referred to Mediterranean Seafood as "the best book written on this, or possibly any other, subject,"  I think he probably smiled to himself thinking about what others would make of the extravagant description, but also thought that it was absolutely true and correct. 

        No excerpt could possibly do Davidson's masterpiece justice or convey its scope, depth and beauty.  Like the Parthenon or the Alhambra, you simply need to visit Mediterranean Seafood in situ.  Fortunately, this is still easily possible, a rare, unambiguous happy 2011 fact.

Moray Eel

1.        "The lizard fish, which belongs to the family Synodontidae in the order of Scopeliformes, is a fairly small deepwater fish.  It is unknown in British waters (and unlikely ever to be imported), but related species are to be found on both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of North America." 

2.         "Anguilla is the Latin name for eel, and eels belong to the order Anguilliformes.  The three edible eels listed belong to the families Anguillidae, Muraenidae, and Congridae. Two of them, the common eel and the conger, are found in British waters.  In North American waters the American eel is closely akin to the common eel, and it is eaten in some areas, although much less than its merits would warrant.  There are also congers and morays, but these are rarely eaten."

Coin depicting head of Vedius Pollio (left), legate of Asia (d. 15 BC)

3.        "The Romans esteemed the moray and kept them as pets in special pools.  It is popularly believed that they fed live slaves to them.  The basis for this belief seems to be an anecdote about a certain Vedius Pollio, who had Augustus dining with him.  A careless slave of Pollio broke a piece of his glass.  Pollio had him thrown into a pool full of 'muranae'; and Pliny remarks that the point of this procedure was that no other living creatures could afford Pollio the spectacle of a man being torn entirely to pieces in one moment.  But this is beyond the capability of morays, and the story is equally implausible if we suppose, with d'Arcy Thompson, that the fish in the pool were lampreys.  Noting that according to some versions of the story the slave was reprieved by Augustus, I conclude that the affair amounted to a non-event, and that our attitude to the moray should not be affected by a tale grossly exaggerated to further the purposes of Roman moralizers.

Emperor Augustus (Prima Porta), 1st century AD

        The moray also had a reputation for unusual sexual activities. If the description given by Oppian reproduced below in Mair's translation were true this would, I believe, be the only instance of a creature from one of the three elements (water, earth, air) mating with a creature from another. But I am advised that what Oppian wrote must have been based more on imagination, of a powerful and poetical kind, than on observation:

        'Touching the Muraena there is a not obscure report that a Serpent mates with her and the Muraena herself comes forth from the sea willingly, eager mate to eager mate. The bitter Serpent, whetted by the fiery passion within him, is frenzied for mating and drags himself nigh the shore; and anon he espies a hollow rock and therein vomits forth his baneful venom, the fierce bile of his teeth, a deadly store, that he may be mild and serene to meet his bride.  Standing on the shore, he utters his hissing note, his mating call; and the dusky Muraena quickly hears his cry and speeds swifter than an arrow.  She stretches her from the sea, he from the land treads the grey surf, and, eager to mate with one another, the two embrace, and the panting bride receives with open mouth the Serpent's head.'"



Lord Vishnu resting on Ananta-Sesha (world serpent with 1,000 heads) with Lakshmi massaging his feet, 18th century

        Following, to round out our short fish tour and give some flavor of the individual fish sections of Mediterranean Seafood, are Davidson's fuller descriptions of the lizard fish and the moray eel.  I have included only general cuisine suggestions, rather that recipes.  Unfortunately, I am unable to reproduce Thao Soun Vannithone's remarkable illustrations, which have both educated me and given me many hours of pleasure.  They are incredibly precise, evocative and beautiful and adorn some other of Alan Davidson's books, as well as various selections on the booklist of Davidson's publishing company, Prospect Books:

Reef Lizard Fish

Shortnose Greeneye (Chlorophthalmus agassizi)

Lizard Fish
Synodus saurus (Linnaeus)
Family Synodonitae

French: Lezard
Greek: Scarmos
Italian: Pesce lucertola
Spanish: Pez de San Francisco
Tunisian: Zerzoumia
Other names: Drago (Cat.)

Remarks:  Maximum length 35 cm. Brought up from deep water trawling.  Has a head rather like that of a lizard.  The species Aulopus Filamentosus (Bloch) is very similar, but a little larger.

Another deepwater fish from the same order is the smaller Chlorophthalmus agassizi (Bonaparte).  It may be distinguished at once by the big green eyes set on top of its head.  It is sometimes met in the markets (as ojiverde in Spanish, gourlomatis in Greek, and occhi verde and, in some places, occhione, in Italian).

Cuisine:  Fry in batter.


Fimbriated Moray Eel, Borneo

Moray Eel
Muraena helena (Linnaeus)
Family: Muraenidae

French Murene
Greek:  Smerna
Italian: Murena
Spanish: Morena
Tunisian: Mrina or Lefaa (viper)
Turkish: Izmirna
Other names: Lamrini (Mor.), Morina (Malta), Marina (S.C.)

Remarks:  Maximum length 150 cm.  Of varying colours, but always distinctively mottled (e.g., off-white on dark brown).  They have a dangerous bite and are both cunning and greedy.  According to Euziere some fishermen believe that the moray likes to live near an octopus, of which when other food fails he will eat a tentacle, knowing that it will grow again.

The skin of the moray can be cured and used, e.g., for bookbinding, although this is not done commercially.

Cuisine:  Opinions vary.  Professor Bini, in correspondence, has told me that in his view the flesh of the moray is perhaps the finest of all Mediterranean fish.  Others would expect to use it only in bouillabaisse. The Romans seem to have grilled the moray or boiled it, and Apicius gives sauces for both dishes. Avoid the bony tail-end.

        One recommendation, which I endorse is to poach sections of the cleaned fish, let them cool, trim them into neat pieces and serve these wth aioli (p. 270).  Another is to use moray eel in a Tunisian couscous (p. 374). 

        To suppress any trace of the snake-like shape of the eel, which repels some people, use the skinned and deboned flesh of the moray to make Syrian fish patties (p. 389).  Or -- to make the disguise even more thorough, by using geometry -- adopt the following variation of that recipe.  Make your fish and burghul dough as instructed.  Then spread it out in an oiled oven dish over a bed of lightly fried onion.  Flatten it out well and cut it into lozenge shapes.  Sprinkle a little oil on top and bake the dish in a moderate oven (355 degrees F; gas 4) for 20 minutes.  Then let it cool before separating the pieces.  They are very good when eaten cold with a salad and tahini sauce (p. 390).

From: Alan Davidson, Mediterranean Seafood (Second Edition), London, Penguin, 1981.

This post is dedicated to Kevin Ayers, who introduced us to Alan Davidson's books, including this one.

Ribbon Moray Eel

 Serpent, Rajastan, 18th century, ink and color on paper

 Sargasso Sea, Birthplace of Eels

Apicius, 1709 Dutch edition (here entitled De opsoniis et condimentis sive arte coquinaria libri decem, "Ten books on foods and condiments or the art of cookery".)


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