The young 'fry' of herrings or sprats, usually collected from March to August. Washed, tossed lightly in flour and lightly deep-fried whole, head-on and un-gutted. Commonly sprinkled with seasoning and served with lemon wedges and bread. Whitebait were formerly sold by volume - 'a pint of whitebait'. A Festival to celebrate the height of the whitebait harvest has been held in Southend on-and-off since 1707.
From; The Naturalist on the Thames, by C. J. Cornish, c1890
From the late 18th century it became the custom for parliamentarians wanting a location for a discrete dinner discussion away from Westminster to travel to Greenwich. Several pubs there made a speciality of whitebait, which used to be caught nearby in the Thames. This led to a tradition of grand and formal political Whitebait Dinners, with ministers proceeding solemnly by boat from Parliament, Liberals to the 'Trafalgar Inn', and Tories to the 'Ship'. The last such Dinner was held in 1894, leading 'Punch' to have two politicians lamenting:
"The days when we all lived in clover,
Original Receipt from 'Modern Cookery for Private Families' by Eliza Acton (Acton 1845);
TO DRESS WHITE BAIT. (Greenwich Receipt.)
In season in July, August, and September.
This delicate little fish requires great care to dress it well. Do not touch it with the hands, but throw it from your dish or basket into a cloth, with three or four handsful of flour, and shake it well; then put it into a bait sieve, to separate it from the superfluous flour. Have ready a very deep frying-pan, nearly full of boiling fat, throw in the fish, which will be done in an instant: they must not be allowed to take any colour, for if browned, they are spoiled. Lift them out, and dish them upon a silver or earthenware drainer, without a napkin, piling them very high in the centre. Send them to table with a cut lemon, and slices of brown bread and butter.
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