YES, BONES, HEAD... EVERYTHING
The whitebait concept – very small fish cooked and eaten whole including head, fins, bones and innards – is recognised all over the world but is applied to different species reflecting what is or was available locally. In most of Europe, whitebait are young sprats and the sprat is a small cousin of the herring. In fact based on size, it might be more appropriate to call the sprat a nephew of the herring and we’re talking about the sprat’s offspring, which I believe would be the great nephews and great nieces of the herring.
On this basis a whitebait should be between two and three inches long, and whilst they will normally these days be young sprats, other similar fish have fitted the bill in the past including young herring and sardines (both closely related to sprats). Sprats are caught all round European costs including the Baltic, Mediterranean and Black Seas. The two main sources in recent years have been the Baltic and the Black Sea. The Black Sea supply comes and goes but the Baltic supply has been quite steady.
For whitebait, the immediately obvious issue is sustainability. How can you take large quantities of these immature fish, which have never spawned, without hurting the biomass? Undeniably, whitebait fishing has dried up in many parts of the world due to too much fishing pressure. Nevertheless, European whitebait is generally at the lesser concern end of sustainability ratings. As of January 2019, the Marine Conservation Society rates at the Baltic Sea stock as sustainable.
At least part of the reason is that the sprat is very prolific and it matures early, sometimes within 18 months. Female sprats can spawn up to 10 times a year, producing up to 50,000 eggs in a season. That’s not a lot of eggs compared to a cod, but if the fishing is sensible, it’s enough to keep the supply steady. In fact, neither whitebait nor tinned sprats (or brisling as they are known in Scandinavia) is the main destiny of the sprat. This fish is mostly caught for industrial use – it’s turned into fishmeal and fish oils for humans and animals. About 400,000 tons of European sprats including whitebait are caught every year and only a fraction end up as food.
WHITEBAIT DINNERS IN GREENWICH
In the trove of random fish lore, the whitebait chapter is noteworthy. From at least medieval times, whitebait caught in the lower River Thames (great schools of them used to enter river estuaries on summer high tides) was a popular local dish. The fishery rested on a cunning wheeze to get around ancient laws against taking immature fish. The whitebait, argued local fishmongers, was not an immature sprat… Good heavens, no! It was a separate species.
By the late eighteenth century, the reputation of this dish - served within a few hours of being caught and therefore an experience that could only be had in the villages of Greenwich, Blackwall and beyond – travelled up to town and began to attract high society gourmets. What could be more pleasant in the height of summer than to take a pleasant trip down the Thames for a whitebait lunch? Perhaps a glass or ten of ale or hock might have been involved.
A wealthy MP and bon viveur, Sir Robert Preston, kept a “fishing cottage” at Dagenham well beyond Greenwich, to which he invited some high and mighty friends including Prime Minister William Pitt (the Younger). They surely ate whitebait. A short summer trip to the Dagenham cottage became an annual pilgrimage and a course of whitebait became the hallmark. Other cabinet level friends were added. But Dagenham really was a very long way away from affairs of state, so the venue was moved up the river to various taverns in the Greenwich area - still pleasantly rural but less than half the distance.
|Courtesy of The Trafalgar Tavern (a fine place)|
By the time Pitt and Preston died, the “Whitebait Dinners” had taken on a life of their own. Although the defining course was always whitebait, the menus were now long and elaborate, normally including turtle and grouse, multiple puddings and liberal quantities of alcohol. This was a serious men-only let-your-hair-down outing before the parliamentary summer break. Now the whole cabinet attended, from 1837 at the magnificent new Trafalgar Tavern on the edge of the Thames, one of several establishments catering to the burgeoning high society fashion to eat whitebait in Greenwich, a trend also underwritten by the new railway (ministers, however, always arrived in a tarted up army barge which collected them from Westminster). At some point, the Ship Inn a few hundred yards upstream from The Trafalgar became established as the venue where the opposition party held its whitebait dinners.
The institution lasted almost as long as the century, although not without a few gaps. Prime Minister William Gladstone cancelled the 1870 Whitebait Dinner supposedly on the grounds that the MP for Greenwich (which he was) didn’t want to meet his constituents. The last formal Whitebait Dinner was held at The Ship in 1894 with Prime Minister Lord Rosebery presiding.
Thackeray, Dickens and many other writers and commentators including Punch magazine were fascinated by the dinners and the wider context they created including crowds of hoi-polloi gawping at the sight of the country’s top ministers decamping for a pigout dinner in a glorified pub.
Heath Robinson does whitebait...
The links below all worked as of October 2019 but may have been degraded by subsequent edits at the linked site. In such cases the URL root will normally be worth investigating.
Thames fishery destroyed
Southend Whitebait Festival 1
Southend Whitebait Festival 2
Sir Robert Preston’s cottage
Greenwich craze gathers pace
Illustrated London News, 1844
Whitebait suppers / Dickens
Slow demise of the Ship Hotel
Taste of London book
Oxford Food Symposium paper 1997 (use bottom slider to go to page 204)
Foods of England page
Marine Conservation Society
Black Sea whitebait
ICES advice 2019
Sprat reproductive biology