First Catch Your Whitebait

I was watching an article on Ch4 News last night about the virtual extinction of blue fin tuna in Europe thanks to overfishing, and my thoughts turned to our own local un-eco-friendly fish.

Whitebait is one of the – indeed, probably the only truly Greenwich dish. It isn’t the main reason people come to visit anymore, but it’s still on the menu at places like the Trafalgar.

Personally those little whole fish staring up at me through their thin coating of floury glaze give me the creeps in the way larger fish just don’t and I can’t bring myself to eat them, but, like olives, marzipan and oysters, if you like ‘em, you love ‘em; if you don’t, you hate them – there’s no halfway house.

You eat it all – head, fins, tail, guts, the lot. Speed was – and I guess still is – of the essence. Mr and Mrs S.C. Hall, who wrote The Book of the Thames in 1859, were quite clear on the subject:

“unless cooked within a very brief space after removal from the water, it undergoes a change which the ‘nice’ palate can at once detect.”

Since they are no longer caught right outside our doorsteps, I’m guessing we’ve just got used to the ‘change…’ these days.

To keep the fish fresh, large numbers were kept in big buckets of water, hoicked out with a skimmer then rolled alive in flour before being chucked into a cauldron full of bubbling lard for a maximum of two minutes. A squeeze of lemon, a pinch of cayenne pepper, a little bread and butter and, bish-bosh, your very own Sarf London feast.

Back in the day, when the Ship Hotel (which stood roughly where the Cutty Sark ship does today – I’ll come onto that place in detail some other day) vied with the Trafalgar Tavern for the whitebait supper trade.

Both were equally popular, but at least once a year, they became fiercely political when the current Cabinet would all decamp to Greenwich for a pre-session jolly. Depending on the year, one or other establishment would enjoy their patronage – the Ship got the Torys, the Trafalgar the Whigs/Liberals. The rest of the year the place attracted artists and writers scoffing bowls of whitebait washed down with copious amounts of Champagne or a particularly potent punch – I don’t think I’ve read a guidebook that hasn’t mentioned Charles Dickens’s famous quote:

“There is no next morning hangover like that which follows a Greenwich dinner.”

I know the feeling and I don’t even eat the little buggers.

Of course back then, whitebait was thought to be an entirely separate species of fish. Here’s one:

There was much debate as to why it was only available ‘in season’ – between July and the end of August (we’re just out of the traditional season now, of course, though I suspect that the Trafalgar serves it all year round these days) but it was generally thought that they lived further out in the estuary.

It was relatively recently that scientists proved the ridiculous idea sniffed at in The Book of the Thames – that it’s actually just the fry of various fish – mainly herring here in Britain.

In one of those I-don’t-want-to-think-about-it-too-much moments, it was also believed that whitebait was a fish that thrived upon the pollution that the Thames could uniquely provide. The Halls tell us many believe:

“…when the Thames is cleansed and purified, the whitebait will vanish altogether from the river.”

There was quite an industry fishing for the stuff in season.

“The mouth of the net is by no means large, measuring only about three feet square in extent; but the mesh of the hose or bag-end of the net is very small.”

And there’s the rub. In Victorian times, the Thames was positively boiling with young fish during the season. Today, I doubt there’s anywhere in the world that truly bubbles with young fish. Fishermen are being forced to use smaller and smaller gauge nets just to get any kind of catch, fishing for younger and younger fish. And whitebait is the youngest of all.

We have a problem here. Fish is great – it’s healthy and tasty – but we’re just eating too much of the most unsustainable varieties. Too bad for Greenwich that our only ‘national’ dish consists of the young of an albeit still quite sustainable fish. Trouble is, if we eat all the young, there’s nothing left to breed.

It’s a poser. I looked on the Marine Conservation Society’s website for guidance – they don’t conclusively say ‘you must stop eating it now,’ instead opting for

“Taking juveniles before they have a chance to spawn undermines future sustainability”

Which I’m reading as “one to watch…”

I looked on their very useful graph of when it’s safe to buy various sorts of fish and which ones you should avoid at all costs. It doesn’t specifically mention whitebait, but herring seems pretty okay – at the moment.

The MCS also do a free card to carry in your wallet to say when fish are sustainably caught – to get one, call 01989 566017.

2 Comments to “First Catch Your Whitebait”

  1. [...] into cashing in on other people’s fame, he might well have half an eye on the parliamentary Whitebait Dinners that were held at the Trafalgar Tavern and the Ship Hotel, which would have been a cough and a spit [...]

  2. [...] being Dickens fans, expressed a strong desire to see the Trafalgar Tavern and experience the famous Whitebait Dinners. In the event, they asked the timely question of what a whitebait actually is and, grossed-out by [...]