Eels, slimy and snake-like, aren't the world's most loveable creatures, nor are they an obvious dinner choice. But at a Hamburg restaurant, they're served up as a delicacy - and have even been food fit for a king.
Marcus Böse is proud that the establishment he manages offers a unique German delicacy fresh out of the North Sea: eels. The "Alt Hamburger Aalspeicher," run by the Eismann Family, offers traditional Northern German fare in the heart of Hamburg. It is one of the city's best-known places to dine.
Built in 1697 and situated on one of the city's historic canals, its gnarled beams and low ceilings lend the old building its charm. It is Hamburg's third most-photographed building.
In its interior, it is Böse's job to make sure that every diner has the chance to enjoy a true taste of northern Germany. Still, he cannot quite convince Hannelore Schlecht, a guest from Zurich, to try the eel again. "I've actually had it before, prepared in lots of different ways, but I just find it too fatty and pungent in taste," she said. She's chosen mild-tasking sole instead.
Fatty, but tasty
Böse says Schlecht is missing out. It's precisely the high fatty content, oily texture and exceptionally strong flavor that make the taste of eel second to none.
In the small, tidy kitchen, the "Alt Hamburger Aalspeicher" chef prepares more than one hundred servings of eel each week - whether smoked, fried, grilled or pickled, Böse said. The chef selects leaner eels of the best quality when they are delivered live to the restaurant, where they are slaughtered.
A generous amount of oil is poured into a saucepan, where the eel is cooked for 20 minutes. The result is a smooth, melt-in-your-mouth taste of the North Sea. The eel is normally served with seasoned scrambled eggs, rye bread and a hearty portion of roasted potatoes.
Eating it off the bone
A "delicious" meal, Böse says, but the ceremony of serving eel is just as important as the way it is prepared. Böse lovingly describes how guests are presented with the side dishes, as well as a basket of five or six warm eels at their table.
"Each guest starts by choosing the eel they most like the look of," he explains. "Then, they skin it themselves."
"The correct way to eat it is to hold the eel in your hand and nibble the flesh off the bones," Böse says matter-of-factly.
Fit for a king
Sound all a little barbaric? Perhaps, but the northern German tradition of eating eel is respected and enjoyed by people from all levels of society - even royalty. Marion Eismann, who established the "Alt Hamburger Aalspeicher" with her husband 34 years ago, remembers the day King Harald of Norway came for lunch.
"It was very exciting," Eismann recalls. "His representatives called ahead and pre-ordered the menu and wine. But [King Harald] was so fantastic, so nice; I chatted with him for ages. It was great, really a lot of fun.
Marion Eismann now runs the restaurant with her daughter Katarina, with Böse as manager. They say that over the years, they've served many celebrities and no matter who the guest is, most love the taste eel once they've tried it."
Part of the attraction could also be the hearty dose of alcohol traditionally served at the end of the eel meal. But before diners can imbibe, they must partake in a slightly eccentric cleansing ritual. Schnapps is poured onto their hands, which they must rub all over to rid themselves of the grease. Then, a round of Sloe berry schnapps goes down the hatch from a pewter spoon to aid digestion. Cheers!
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