As the Thames is London’s river, so whitebait is its fish. The fascinating story of how whitebait was invented by Thames fishermen to get round conservancy laws, to become an expensive, fashionable dish favoured by Ministers of the Crown are all explored in our forthcoming talk and supper More Than Just A Fish: The Scandalous Story of Whitebait with Writer Roger Williams. Find out more about this little fish with a rich and long history...
THE THAMES WAS ONCE TEEMING WITH WHITEBAIT
The Thames was once full of fish, and there was plenty to go around! Sprats were cheap and treats for the poor, but it was a Blackwall fisherman who popularised ‘whitebait’, the deep fried dish of small fry we know and love today.
Greenwich was the biggest supplier to Billingsgate Market and Barking was the largest fishing port in Britain...
Whitebait suppers were once great social events. A high point in London’s calendar was at the end of the summer Parliamentary session when crowds gathered to see government ministers heading for the taverns of Blackwall or Greenwich for the annual Ministerial Whitebait Dinner. Prime Minister William Gladstone held the last one at the Trafalgar Tavern in 1883.
A LAVISH AFFAIR
Whitebait dinners weren't just a pot of deep fried fish with a side of tartare sauce that we know from pub starter menus today - but fabulous affairs of many courses, including turtle soup, any number of fish, game and meat, with all kinds of puddings, all washed down with punch or Sauternes, Hock or Claret Cup. But at the heart of the menu was always Whitebait, which usually arrived to great rejoicing as a separate course, on silver salvers accompanied by wedges of bread.
LOW FISH STOCKS
Yet this little fish’s fame came at a cost – to fishermen and the fish stocks of the Thames. The fashion set so high a price on the fish that all other fish were cast aside, illegal fishing was rampant, and it led to the decline in the Thames fisheries.
A DYING TRADITION...
Riverside taverns serving whitebait stretched from Poplar to Purfleet, but were centred around Blackwall and Greenwich. The Trafalgar in Greenwich and the Gun in Blackwall are the last of the whitebait taverns, and they still serve the feast to this day. You can sample the dish on Wednesday 19 September.