While a French sailor is a matelot, matelote is not a Wren-type person, but usually a stew of freshwater fish. Matelotes can be made from individual fish, like trout, pike, perch and carp, or may be a combination of all or any of them. The consistency of the dish is important in that identifiable pieces of fish should be served with a thickened sauce – it is not a soup. The fish should never be so overcooked it falls to pieces.
You find variations all over France, with regional recipes stressing local produce. In Alsace a matelote is cooked in Riesling and cream, in Burgundy red wine, and in Normandy dry cider. Onions, mushrooms and bacon are also typical ingredients. Norman matelote is also unique in being made with sea fish.
The Loire version given here is made of eels, the meaty flesh of which is particularly appropriate for a matelote. Even if you can’t face the killing and skinning eels yourself, this dish is well worth cooking at home.
Find a fishmonger who will kill and skin the eels for you and then chop them into 5-cm / 2-inch pieces.
Sauté the button onions in the butter and
Heat the remaining oil in a large heavy-based pan and fry the onions until soft. Add the garlic, turn up the heat and add the eel. Stir and toss, then add the wine and bouquet garni. Season, bring to the boil, then lower the heat and simmer gently for 10–12 minutes, until the flesh just starts pulling easily from the bones.
Drain through a colander into another saucepan, reserving the eel and onion, and reduce the liquor by half at a rapid boil. Discard the bouquet garni.
Put the eel, onions, button onions and mushrooms into the sauce and heat through gently. Serve garnished with fried croutons and chopped parsley.
© 1998 Alastair Little and Richard Whittington estate. All rights reserved.