Such a tiny fish, such a lot of history behind it. The whitebait is actually the spry of both herring and sprats, a naturally oily and tasty fish, if served in the right way, which like the best chips involves double frying, the first time dredged through flour to cook them, the second to give that extra crispy edge.
Served in good quantity with a wedge of lemon and some salt the whitebait is a delight, though is far less often seen these days than it was in the seventies, when it appeared as a starter on many a restaurant menu, accompanied by triangles of brown bread and butter. Of course catching the fry is ecologically questionable, so perhaps we should welcome the infrequency of its use, but enjoy the dish when we see it.
The history behind the fish involves London and Essex : a meeting of 1707 in Southend gave rise to the annual festival to celebrate the whitebait, held at Westcliffe-on-Sea in late September or early October, and to a more political gathering in London held under similar auspices – pubs such as the Old Ship in Greenwich held feasts of the fish at the height of their season, in August and September.
Pollution of the Thames estuary wiped the industry out by 1840, but the festival was begun anew in 1934, and continues to this day. And as the waters of the Thames have been radically cleaned up over the last few decades, so has the catch revived there.