Eel festival at Elizabeth Farm

Wrapping an eel in Gymea leaf and paper bark, ready for the barbeque at the Eel Festival at Elizabeth Farm. Photo © James Horan for Sydney Living Museums

Our free, family-friendly Eel Festival celebrates Parramatta’s namesake, the eel, and its significance to the local Darug people the Burramattagal, who for generations have gathered during eel season to feast, trade and share stories.

Visitors participating in the smoking ceremony at the Eel Festival 2017 at Elizabeth Farm. Photo (c) Scott Hill for Sydney Living Museums

A slippery river bounty

The hunting of eels by indigenous peoples was noted early by Europeans. A note in the Sydney Gazette from 7th April, 1805, records a very successful catch by local Darug on the Nepean River, near Richmond:

A quantity of very fine eels was last week caught by the natives in the Lagoon of Yaramundy, at Hawkesbury, some weighing from 12 to 14lbs.

[The original printed text seems to read 1400 lbs, clearly a typesetting error of some errant zeros, as a gargantuan 635 kilo eel seems a tad unlikely!] Some of those caught were bartered, including this one weighing over 8 kilos:

A fresh water eel, weighing 18lbs. was yesterday brought into town by some natives, and sold. [Gazette, 26th June 1813]
In his 1798 Account of the English Colony in New South Wales David Collins refers to the people living along inland rivers  (the Parramatta, Hawkesbury and Nepean) constructing traps with which to catch eels: ‘They resort at a certain season of the year (the month of April) to the lagoons, where they subsist on eels which they procure by laying hollow pieces of timber into the water, into which the eels creep, and are easily taken’.
An early view, ca1820, by convict artist Joseph Lycett shows eels being hunted with multi-pronged spears, a technique which features in fishing scenes. The location is unknown, but is possibly on Lake Macquarie between Sydney and Newcastle:

Joseph Lycett_two Aborigines spearing eels. Watercolour, ca1817. National Gallery of Australia collection PIC MSR 12/1/4 #R5679

Detail of Joseph Lycett’s view depicting eels being speared. National Gallery of Australia collection

The explanatory text accompanying the plate stated “Very large Eels are taken here by the Natives, who make Canoes of the bark of the large Eucalyptus, from which, at certain seasons of the year, they spear vast quantities of these Eels, weighing from ten to twenty pounds each“.  [Joseph Lycett, Views in Australia, 1824-5. Text accompanying plate 22.].
The Sydney basin has both fresh water and salt water eels. After heavy rain visitors to the Botanic Gardens or Centennial Parklands can be greeted by the extraordinary sight of eels ‘snaking’ their way across the sodden grass between ponds. Most extraordinary is how far they migrate: the long finned eel (Anguilla reinhardtii) makes its way all the way from Australia’s east coat, across the Pacific to its spawning grounds in New Caledonia! You can read more on this page from the Australian Museum.
But while the Parramatta River – Parramatta meaning ‘the place where the eels lie down‘  – abounded in eels each autumn, to the local Burramuttagal this was not a bounty to be enjoyed, but a totem animal to be respected.

At the Elizabeth Farm this Sunday

This Sunday we’re celebrating Parramatta and Elizabeth Farm’s indigenous history with the Eel Festival. There’ll be talks, a Darug language workshop, and for the adventurous, Jacqui will be making one of her signature dishes – collared eel in the colonial kitchen – while Fred’s Bush Tucker will be showing you how to cook eel in paperbark – followed by a taste!

Lindsay Adam from Fred’s Bush Tucker showing visitors how eel is prepared for cooking at Elizabeth Farm. Photo © James Horan for Sydney Living Museums

Enter the iconic house to discover the stories of how Indigenous peoples and the colonial Macarthurs related to each other. The day’s music line-up includes contemporary Aboriginal performing artist and award winning poet, Gumaroy Newman playing the Yidaki (Didgeridoo), performances from the acclaimed Mt Druitt Indigenous Choir singing in variety of Aboriginal languages – and a special guest appearance from Indigenous music act, the Stiff Gins!

The Stiff Gins. Photo courtesy the Stiff Gins

Full details are online here, along with times for the free shuttle bus that goes from the ferry stop (the perfect way to get here!) and Parramatta station.

And a recipe for ‘Spitchcocked eels’

We’ve mentioned the satirical Tabitha Tickletooth,teh actor Charles Selby, who gave all sorts of advice on dining and matters culinaire. Included are several recipes for eel, including this for ‘Spitchcocked eels’:

This process consists of first lightly stewing and then broiling the eels instead of simply frying them.  the preliminary preparation being precisely the same… [skinned, de-boned, cut into slices around 4 inches long]; then (here you leave the simple frying process), having put 2 ounces of butter in a stew pan, with a little minced parsley and thyme, a blade of mace, a leaf or two of sage, and a small shall shalot, chopped very fine. Having well egged and breadcrumbed your eels, put them in the [frying] pan, let them remain just long enough to set the coating with the butter and herbs on both sides, then put them on the Gridiron [a grill]… first rubbing the bars with bits of suet to prevent the pieces from sticking, broil for a few minutes until both sides are light brown, garnish with crisped parsley and anchovy sauce.

See you at the festival!
Elizabeth Farm: Sunday 11 March, 10am-4pm. Free!

To collar an eel

Eels all wrapped up