White Bait,—‘This is a fish which belongs especially to London; although it is obtainable in other rivers in Great Britain and the Continent, yet it is not sought for; great difference of opinion exists amongst naturalists as to what fish this is the young of; in my humble opinion, I think it is a species distinct of itself, having a life of short duration. It is caught only in brackish water, floating up and down the river, according to the tide,—in every dry summers as high up as Greenwich, and in very wet as low as Gravesend. They spawn in winter, and make their appearance, about one inch in length, early in March. They should be cooked as follows:
Put then in a cloth, which shake gently as to dry them, then place them in some very fine breadcrumbs and flour mixed; toss them lightly with the hands, take them out immediately and put them in a wire basket; and fry them in hot lard; one minute will cook them; turn them out on a cloth, sprinkle a little salt over, and serve very hot.
Alexis Soyer, The Modern Housewife (1850)
Whitebait is one of the few dishes (aside from roasted ox) I have found mentioned in relation to Soyer’s Symposium of All Nations.
In May 1851 The Atlas reported that ‘the Symposium will become a serious antagonist to the Greenwich and Blackwall White-Bait dinners, for in addition to the irreproachable cooking, white-bait is to be provided daily.’
In the UK, whitebait is generally regarded as immature sprats or herrings (although as Soyer indicates there was some debate in previous centuries as to whether they were a separate species altogether.) Lightly doused in flour or breadcrumbs they are deep fried and have been a staple on pub menus all over Britain for decades.
Beloved by Cabinet Ministers…
It appears they were also popular with Cabinet Ministers in the 19th century who would make their way down the Thames to Greenwich and Blackwall for whitebait suppers at the close of the parliamentary session. Charles Dickens was somewhat vexed as to why the ministers should want to make this trip but Valerie Mars (who has written a great article on the subject) has suggested that it was an excuse for a less formal boys night out.
Sustainability seems to have been less of a concern for our Victorian forebears. As much as I do enjoy whitebait it does appear a little out of sorts to eat such tiny fish. The Marine Stewardship Council list sprats as being OK to eat but notes that improvement in their levels is needed adding that ‘some sprat populations are under pressure from heavy fishing.’ Mackerel is more sustainable so I have opted to use goujons of this fish rather than young sprats or herrings for my homage to Victorian whitebait.
E S Dallas author of Kettner’s Book of the Table (1877) is adamant that the fish should be coated only in flour (sometimes devilled with the addition of cayenne) and fried in beef fat (lard was a popular alternative). Most Victorian cookery writers, including Eliza Acton (who provides a ‘Greenwich Receipt’ for whitebait in Modern Cooking for Private Families), suggest serving this dish with brown bread and butter and a wedge of lemon. Abraham Hayward recommends a glass of champagne as a suitable beverage which I imagine would have been a very popular tipple for the Cabinet Ministers of the day.
Ingredients for 2 people as a starter or snack
2 x fresh mackerel fillets
3 tbsp plain flour
¼ tsp Cayenne or ground black pepper
¼ tsp fine sea salt
Vegetable oil for shallow frying
Lemon wedges and salt to serve
Check the mackerel fillets for bones removing any you come across. Mix the flour, cayenne and the salt on a plate.
Cut the mackerel fillets into slices about 1cm wide. Toss them in the spiced flour
Add about 2-3 cm depth worth of oil to a deep frying pan or wok then heat the until fairly hot. A small piece of bread should sizzle vigorously and turn brown quite quickly. Personally, I don’t think it’s worth setting up a deep fat fryer for such a small quantity but be my guest if you would prefer to do it that way.
Carefully lay some of the flour dredged goujons in the hot fat. Fry for around 1 minute giving the goujons a quick stir every now and then to ensure they take on an even colour. You may need to do this in batches. Once cooked removed with a slotted spoon and drain on some kitchen towel. Keep warm in a low oven (75℃) while you cook the rest.
Serve immediately with bread and butter and a wedge of lemon.
Sources & Further Reading
Acton, E. Modern Cookery for Private Families (1845)
The Atlas, M. Soyer’s Symposium. 17 May 1851. (Accessed online at https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk)
Dallas, E. S. Kettner’s Book of the Table. (1877)
Dickens, C. Household Words Volume VII (1853) (Accessed online at Dickens Journals Online)
Hayward, A. The Art of Eating. (1852)
Mars, V. Little Fish and Large Appetites: Victorian Whitebait Dinners at Blackwall, Gravesend and Greenwich in Fish: Food from the Waters edited by Harlan Walker (Oxford Symposium, 1998)
Soyer, A. The Modern Housewife, Or Ménager̀e: Comprising Nearly One Thousand Receipts (1850)