Mind to menu: Jeremy Lee’s smoked eel sandwich

Mind to menu: Jeremy Lee’s smoked eel sandwich

by Tom Shingler 16 May 2017

The signature dish at Quo Vadis sounds incredibly simple, but the way it so perfectly encapsulates British flavours has made it an instant classic. Jeremy Lee tells us how it came into being.

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Tom Shingler is the editor of Great British Chefs.

Tom Shingler is the editor of Great British Chefs.

Smoked eel, sourdough bread, horseradish cream, mustard, butter and a spoonful of pickled red onions – a refreshingly short list of ingredients for a recipe that’s lauded across London as one of the shining examples of British cuisine. Jeremy Lee’s Smoked eel sandwich is a favourite of food critics and regulars at his Soho-based restaurant Quo Vadis, where the simple dish celebrates the quality of the ingredients on the plate. ‘For a humble sandwich, it was the most unforeseen thing,’ says Jeremy, who first came up with it whilst working at The Blueprint Café in the Design Museum.

Smoked eel isn’t an ingredient you can easily find in the shops. In fact, it was quite the speciality. ‘There was a man called Mr Beale who had a small business called Beale’s Eels up in Lincolnshire,’ explains Jeremy. ‘They were the traditional eels from the Fens – light, intact and a far greater luxury than salmon (and per pound much more expensive). No one really understood the eel – it was a curious thing that swam from the Fens to the Wide Sargasso Sea and back to spawn. Arch-foodies loved it, and when you introduced people to its flavour they were amazed, because all they knew beforehand was jellied eels from pie shops in the East End. In London you had to go to Chinatown to get one – they would take it out of the tank and literally batter the living daylights out of it, throwing it from wall to wall, which isn’t a way you normally see your dinner prepared.

‘Unfortunately, Mr Beale suffered a stroke and consequently sold his company to a Dutch couple – Wilhelm and Corine Rozendaal – who renamed it The Dutch Eel Co and introduced all the esteemed Dutch practices of preparing and smoking eels, preserving what is arguably the last sole eel-based business in the country,’ he continues. ‘We bought eels from them all the time, getting a fresh delivery every Monday.’

The eels Jeremy was buying in didn’t go into a sandwich straight away. ‘I used to do a dish of potato pancake, horseradish cream, smoked eel, bacon and a poached egg – it was heavenly,’ he says. ‘But now and again it might not sell so well or we’d have a few eels too many in the fridge, and we were wondering what to do with it. It was too expensive to be casual with, and when we added it to salads it seemed a bit disingenuous as the eel flavour got lost among the vinegars and mustards. It wasn’t elegant enough.’

After much deliberating, Jeremy and the team decided to replace the potato pancake with grilled and buttered sourdough. This was before the boom of sourdough bakeries in London, and it took them quite a while to find a loaf with the right structure. ‘We ended up getting it from Neal’s Yard Dairy, who despite being the champions of British cheese were selling French bread at the time,’ he says. ‘We were still waiting for that British food revolution to happen. We started adding a few other things, and suddenly there it was before us. We meddled with the mustard until we got a delicious salad cream-type affair and worked on fine-tuning the vinegar and sugar in the horseradish. If you put oily smoked fish with a fiery cream it can become very greasy, so it was all a huge balancing act for something so simple.’

The sandwich was a hit at The Blueprint Café, but it was only when Jeremy made the move to Quo Vadis in 2012 that it really received the recognition it deserved. ‘When I came to Quo Vadis we decided to add these boxes around the à la carte on the menu, and I planned to feature a truffle sandwich in one of them,’ he explains. ‘Unfortunately, we couldn’t source any truffles when we opened, so I just put it on there to fill a space. It’s never been off the menu since and suddenly we couldn’t source enough eels to meet demand.’

But how did the smoked eel sandwich instantly transform from a simple snack to an iconic example of British cuisine? Jeremy isn’t sure, but thinks it might have something to do with the food revolution in the UK that was in full swing at the time. ‘I think it just said something about what we were trying to do,’ he says. ‘A sandwich is so quintessentially British and something everyone makes at home, so to elevate it to something special was a curiously defining moment. I blush with pride at how popular it is, and while it encapsulates British flavours so perfectly I think there’s something deliciously elusive about it at the same time, which I like a great deal.’

Fancy cooking Jeremy's smoked eel sandwich at home?

Click the recipe below to see how you can recreate the iconic Quo Vadis dish in your own kitchen.