Michele Roberts meets a slippery customer

Jules brought the eels home on the Tube, startling other passengers, writes <strong>Michele Roberts<

Midsummer madness in Britain involves surprise urban picnics regardless of the weather. A pause in the drizzle, after a lunchtime concert of Bengali music in the courtyard of Saint Bartholomew's Hospital, and there we were, seated on a grassy knoll in nearby Postman's Park. Opposite us was the wooden pagoda walled with porcelain tiles commemorating the workers who gave their lives for others. Squares of newspaper as cushions. Spanish white wine in proper wineglasses. Slices of dried tuna carved with Stephen's Opinel knife. With pieces torn from a big, flat Turkish loaf, we scooped up home-made hummus scented with cumin, slices of courgette fried in olive oil. We began discussing Boris Vian. I had read that he was one of the 20 most popular writers in France today. Also, he writes about food - in particular, in L'ecume des jours (first published in 1947), which Stephen had lent me, about eels.

The opening chapter of this feast of wordplay features a rich young man, Colin, awaiting the arrival for dinner of his friend Chick. Colin checks with his chef, Nicolas, the menu du soir and the recipe for eels en croute. Make a pastry crust in the usual way. Chop a fat eel into slices three centimetres thick. Put these into a saucepan with some white wine, salt and pepper, finely sliced onions, parsley, thyme, bay leaves and a crushed garlic clove. Cook. Remove to a frying pan. Pour the cooking juices through a sieve lined with silk, add some sauce espagnole, and reduce until it thickens enough to coat the back of a spoon. Pour the sauce over the eel and boil. Place the eel in the centre of the pastry, and put "turned" mushrooms around the edges.

Chick enjoys his dinner: What gave you the idea of eel? Colin explains. An eel kept swimming up the cold-water pipe and popping its head into the bathroom washbasin. It was attracted by the American toothpaste, flavoured with pineapple, that Nicolas kept there. It would bite into the tube and suck out the toothpaste. Nicolas captured it by substituting a whole pineapple. Sinking its fangs into fruit flesh, the eel stuck fast and could not get away. Nicolas decapitated it with a razor blade, turned on the tap, and collected the rest of the body. Let's hope there's a whole family of eels waiting in the pipe, says Chick.

The next evening, I went to a 21st-birthday dinner for my godson Otto, cooked by his father, Julian. The first course was smoked eel. Jules brought the eels home on the Tube, their heads sticking out of the bag and startling other passengers. Tonight the Boris Vian reading group reconvenes at the Grapes, off Commercial Road in east London. What better way to spend a summer night than drinking beer by the river, gossiping about novels, and deciding on the best pie-and-mash shop locally for eels in liquor?

This article first appeared in the 04 July 2005 issue of the New Statesman, Now is the time to act