Baby eels spanish food

What are Angulas (Spanish Baby Eels)?

One of the great things about money is that if you have a lot of it, you can spend it on really expensive things. Like Spanish baby eels, called angulas, which cost about $500 per pound.

What are Angulas?

Angulas are baby eels, known as elvers in English, and they're a pale, 3-inch-long, worm-shaped seafood that happens to be a Basque delicacy. 

Angulas are the offspring of the common Atlantic eel, which are born in the Sargasso Sea, in the part of the Atlantic Ocean that roughly corresponds with the Bermuda Triangle. 

The baby eels drift eastward on the ocean currents, winding up in the freshwater estuaries of Spain some three years later, where fishermen scoop them up. Those that survive to adulthood live for 10 years before returning to the Sargasso Sea (the return journey takes five months) to spawn and die, and the cycle starts over again.

But angulas weren't always Spain's most expensive food. As with so many luxury foods, angulas started out as peasant fare. The high price is only a result of demand and scarcity brought on by overfishing. Today, angulas are dangerously close to extinction. 

How Are They Used?

Angulas a la bilbaína is a traditional Basque recipe, named after Bilbao, the city in Northern Spain where it originated. And it's a simple preparation. 

First, olive oil is heated in an earthenware dish, along with sliced garlic and red guindilla chile, which is a skinny chile pepper with medium heat. Once the oil is sizzling, the angulas are added and stirred (traditionally with a wooden utensil, because metal is thought to taint the mild flavor of the angulas) briefly before removing them from the heat and serving right away, seasoned with salt and pepper and perhaps a splash of white wine. 

It's often served tapas-style, as part of a multicourse meal. It's sometimes served with spaghetti.

What Do Angulas Taste Like?

If you're wondering what Spain's most expensive food tastes like, the answer, oddly enough, is: not much. The flavor itself is somewhere between mild to nonexistent, while the texture is similar to that of cooked spaghetti, with a slight crunch to it.

It's perhaps paradoxical, then, that the traditional method of preparing angulas in a spicy oil is guaranteed to thoroughly overpower the flavor of the angulas themselves. Especially given how much you're paying for the privilege.

A tin containing 1.7 ounces (50 grams) of angulas sells for $50 in 2020, or about a dollar per gram. A random sampling of recipes for preparing angulas call for, respectively, 600 grams, 150 grams, and 320 grams of angulas, with a single portion weighing in at anywhere from 50 to 75 grams. 

Thus, at a dollar per gram, you're looking at a significant outlay of money to purchase this ingredient, and it may well put it far out of reach for all but the most devoted, or perhaps the achingly curious.

Gulas: Imitation Angulas

Because of the scarcity, and the cost, of genuine angulas, an imitation product called "gulas" was introduced in the 1980s, and it's become quite popular. They're made of surimi, which is the same pollock-based fish paste that is used to make imitation crab. 

And instead of forming the paste into long sticks, its shaped into tiny worm shapes the exact length and thickness of genuine angulas. The difference is only apparent on close inspection, as the imitation product lacks the eyes of the genuine article. In terms of price, surimi costs about $4 per kilo, as compared with $1,100 per kilo for genuine angulas.

But again, the fact that the mild tasting surimi is a convincing substitute for angulas is a testament to the fact that true angulas don't taste like much.

Where to Buy Angulas

Several internet retailers based in the United States carry 4-ounce jars of Spanish baby eels. They can be found online under brands like Conservas de Cambados, La Tienda, and Iberia. These real baby eels are from places like Galicia and are hand-prepared and packed in oil. Typically, the product is already seasoned with salt and cayenne pepper.  

If you're curious, but not enough to spend a small fortune, the imitation version might be more your speed. Gulas are available in jars or cans (4 oz/111 grams) for a fraction of the cost. Gulas can be enjoyed on sliced bread topped with mayonnaise and red peppers.

Why baby eels are one of Spain’s most expensive foods


Food & Hospitality | Food & Drink

Why baby eels are one of Spain’s most expensive foods

(Image credit: David Doubilet/Getty Images)

By Mike Randolph24th March 2018

Angulas are astronomically expensive, up to 1,000 euros per kilo, which is strange because they don’t taste of much at all.


Baby eels are one of Spain’s most expensive foods, but when you see them for the first time you might wonder why.

They’re not, to put it mildly, something that cries out to be eaten. When alive, they’re transparent and slimy, slithering and squirming like tiny snakes. Cooked, they turn opaque and resemble limp, dead worms, except they’re white with two tiny black dots for eyes. Hungry yet?

But lots of delicious things are not particularly good looking; what’s important is the taste. Here’s where it gets strange. It’s not that angulas, as they’re called in Spain, taste good or bad. They don’t taste of much at all – which is strange because they’re astronomically expensive, up to 1,000 euros a kilo. Even stranger still, legend has it they were once so unappreciated they were used as fodder for chickens and pigs. But then again, when it comes to eels, everything is strange.

Many Spaniards find it difficult to understand why some people are willing to pay so much for angulas, including me. As a writer and podcaster about Spanish food and culture, I’ve always found it mystifying. Especially because the traditional recipe (a la bilbaína) calls for frying garlic and hot peppers in lots of olive oil and then adding angulas – a sure way to overpower their mild flavour.

Baby eels, or angulas, are one of Spain’s most expensive foods (Credit: David Doubilet/Getty Images)

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Of course, mystery surrounds eels, not least when it comes to their life cycle, which sounds like something out of a dark fairy tale. They live in freshwater, but can breathe through their skin and travel over land for long distances. They eat just about anything, living or dead. Then at the age of 10 or so, they swim downstream in rivers across Europe to the Atlantic Ocean and somehow (it’s still unknown to science) they find their way to the Sargasso Sea, some 5,000km away. At depths of more than 500m – quite a feat for a creature that lives most of its life in shallow freshwater – they spawn and die, and their hatchlings drift on the Gulf Stream currents towards Europe, a journey that takes at least two years.

When the angulas finally arrive on Spain’s Atlantic shores, fisherman with scoop nets are waiting for them. The season starts in November, and the best time to catch them is in the middle of the coldest, blackest, rainiest nights when the tide is strong and the water is rough and turbid. Of course.

It takes at least two years for eel hatchlings to drift from the Sargasso Sea to Spain’s Atlantic coast (Credit: Siqui Sanchez/Getty Images)

While angulas are incredibly pricey, the first batch to go on auction every year are more expensive still. In 2016, the first lot up for sale weighed 1.25 kilos and sold for an eye-watering 5,500 euros. Wholesale. And yet the second lot, which weighed about the same, sold for a ‘mere’ 1,070 euros.

So why the difference? Same baby eels, bought minutes apart, just one batch before the other. Even more curious is that both lots were bought by the same man.

I tracked down the buyer, José Gonzalo Hevia, who owned Casa Tista restaurant in Asturias, to ask him.

“It was a bit of marketing for my restaurant and also an homage to the fisherman,” said Gonzalo Hevia, now retired. He was once an angula fisherman himself. “The atmosphere at the auction is very exciting. It’s a big media event. The next day, the name of my restaurant was in every newspaper and on every TV station.”

That kind of publicity can bring in a lot of customers. “Some of my clients came back 20 or 30 times a season to eat angulas,” Gonzalo Hevia added. When I asked him what’s so special about them, he said, “It’s the texture more than anything.

Legend has it that angulas were once so unappreciated that they were fed to chickens and pigs (Credit: Mike Randolph)

But the texture doesn’t seem so special to me. I remember them as slippery, with a very slight crunch. Still wondering why people would pay so much for them, I visited Arima, a noted Basque restaurant in Madrid, and spoke to the head chef, Rodrigo García Fonseca.

García Fonseca, who served 3kg of them in one week this past January, also a la bilbaína, said, “I wouldn’t pay that money for them. They have no taste, no colour, nothing, not even smell. A lettuce has more aroma. But I had two guys in here that ordered half a kilo of them. Five hundred euros in one shot. Some people who have money like to spend it. Who doesn’t like being a snob from time to time?”

Nagore Irazuegi, the owner of Arima, is also from the Basque Country, where angulas are ingrained in the traditional menus of Christmas Eve, New Years and the Day of San Sebastian on 20 January. “They’re way overpriced, but some people like the ostentation of it,” she said. But she is quick to add that there is more to it. “On special feast days, it’s just a tradition to eat them. And that ties a certain class of people together. It’s a cultural thing. More than anything, people want to belong.”

In 1991, Angulas Aguinaga created imitation angulas using surimi, a paste of processed fish (Credit: Mike Randolph)

Whether or not baby eels were once fed to livestock (everyone I spoke to had heard the same story, but little evidence exists), there’s no doubt they were once the food of the working class in northern Spain. But that was back when angulas were plentiful, and therefore cheap. As angulas became scarce and prices rose, a company called Angulas Aguinaga saw an opportunity. In 1991, using surimi, a paste of processed fish, they created imitation angulas, which are called simply gulas. They look almost the same, but that’s about it. Gulas are softer and taste vaguely fishy. And yet they’re so popular you can find them in just about any grocery shop in Spain.

Part of the reason angulas are so expensive is that dams and environmental degradation have taken a toll on eel numbers, and they are now listed as critically endangered. Overfishing has also played a part. In the past, live angulas were exported to China, where they were fattened and sold as mature eels, but that has been banned since 2010. Still, a lively black market persists. In 2017, Spanish police uncovered an international angula-trafficking operation that, when busted, had a stash of gold ingots, 1m euros in cash, plus 2m euros worth of live angulas headed for China.

Three-star Michelin chefs have also played a role in the price increase. Manolo González, an award-winning food writer and historian from San Sebastian and secretary of one of the city’s famed gastronomic clubs, Cofradía del Ajo y el Perejil (The Brotherhood of the Garlic and Parsley), explains. “When I was young, in the 1950s and 60s, we ate a lot of angulas. At that time, they were still considered too low class for a restaurant to serve, but in the ‘70s, the great Basque restaurants like Arzak started to cook with them, and all of a sudden, angulas were high class.”

Now they were not only scarce, they were also fashionable. It was a perfect storm of demand. Prices skyrocketed.

The traditional recipe for angulas a la bilbaína calls for tossing the eels with garlic and hot peppers fried in olive oil (Credit: Basque Country - Mark Baynes/Alamy)

And yet they remain popular. Why?

“Exclusivity has always played a role in gastronomy,” González explained. He likens it to buying wines that cost 5,000 euros a bottle, way beyond their true value, but worth it to some even if only to show status. While admitting that angulas don’t taste of much, González does enjoy the texture. “And for a food lover, on a special occasion, 80 euros for an appetizer isn’t completely out of reach.”

While he himself doesn’t cook with them anymore because of the high price, the taste of the classic angula recipe with oil, garlic and hot peppers still holds fond memories.

“You can make the same dish but with using spaghetti. We call it Poor Man’s Angulas,” he said with a touch of irony. “Try it, you’ll see how delicious it is!”

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Angulas fish delicacy, or the tale of the traveling fish. Spain in Russian

This story begins not close, not far, but in the fresh waters of Europe, where adult eels, calmly swimming in their cozy reservoirs, become restless, experiencing an irresistible desire to breed in autumn. Here begins their journey to the Sargasso Sea, where they spawn and then die. And their offspring, more like transparent petals, picks up the Gulf Stream and carries it back to Europe. Their journey can last two or three years, and almost at the end of this journey, the fry will face a test - the nets of insidious catchers "anguleros", hidden in dark waters ...

The tale is a lie, but there is a hint in it, because this is how one of the most expensive Spanish fish delicacies is extracted - angulas, or eel fry.

What kind of animal is this - angula, and how is it mined?

By the way, angulas are the only type of fry officially allowed to be caught by Spanish fishing laws. The fishing season for fry lasts from October-November to March inclusive. Angulas are caught by fishermen, who are called "anguleros", mainly at night with special nets with very small cells.

"Golden" catch: the most expensive angulas of the season

It is interesting that one "expensive" tradition is connected with the first catch of fry of the year - an auction for its sale, where the best restaurateurs fight for it. For example, this season, the first catch of fry was purchased on November 1, 2016 at a price of 5500 € per kilogram by the Casa Tista restaurant (Asturias). But this is not the limit, because in 2015 such fish were sold for 6125 € per kilogram. But do not be so scared, the average cost of this delicacy is several times lower (although it is not widely available) - about 700-800 € per kg, while prices change depending on temporary demand. Prices for 100 g of angulas in a restaurant can also vary depending on the level of the institution, for example, in the above-mentioned Casa Tista, the delicacy is served at a “symbolic”, according to restaurateur Pepe Tista, price of 95–100 € per serving.

"Spaghetti with eyes", or what angulas look like

Eel fry look like thin spaghetti with two small eyes, which is why they are sometimes called "spaghetti with eyes". The fry enter fish shops and restaurants at the age of 2–3 years, while their length is 6–8 cm.

Before cooking, cover the live fry with a lid and invert them quickly into the hot pan. Another unusual method is also used: a handful of fry is dipped into water with brewed tobacco, after which they are washed and doused with boiling water. It is said that this method contributes to the most thorough cleaning and the acquisition of a special milky shade by the fish.

Most of all young eels are valued for their dense texture, and most chefs do not recommend distorting their taste with any sauces. That is why the most popular angulas recipe is distinguished by its exquisite simplicity.

Traditional angulas recipe

For this classic recipe from Bilbao (Angulas a la Bilbaína), you need angulas, olive oil, garlic and hot chili peppers. Olive oil is poured into a ceramic frying pan, where the garlic and chili are fried until golden brown, then the fry are added and fried for about one minute. The dish is served hot, and it should be eaten with a wooden fork, as metal, according to experts, spoils the taste of this fish.

This delicacy is most popular in northern Spain, in the Basque Country. It is also considered one of the traditional dishes of the Christmas table. Of course, for those who can afford to buy a truly "golden" fish.

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