Monday, July 13, 2009

A Taste of London: Greenwich Whitebait

A Taste of London in Food and Pictures by Theodore Fitzgibbon (Pan Books, 1973) is a mixture of social history and recipes, with the latter chosen because of their associations with the capital. Examples include London Buns, Chelsea Buns, Bubble & Squeak and Pease Pudding.

The nearest it comes to a specific South London recipe is in a section on Greenwich and Whitebait. It states:

Since medieval times it has been a summer custom to go by water to Greenwich, and a river boat still plies in the summer from Westminster Bridge and Charing Cross Pier, but alas the Souchet and the freshly caught whitebait dinners are a thing of the past, although frozen whitebait are available. Old Greenwich Fair in the Park was the scene of every variety of entertainment.

'The flair began directly you landed from the ship "Torbay Tavern" up to the Park gates, and the road was bordered on either side with stalls, games, and handwaggons containing goods or refreshments of every description ... ' G. Culver Budd, Easter and Whitsun Fairs in and about old Greenwich, 1910

'Then won't I have a precious lark
Down One Tree Hill in Greenwich Park.'

(Cruickshank, Comic Almanack. )

'Gladstone at Greenwich Ate his whitebait gaily,
Then ordered tea and shrimps, And sent for Disraeli.
Benjamin Disraeli sent back word to say:
"I'm wanted in the City, It's Lord Mayor's Day".

Whitebait are the small fry of the herring although some­times small sprats are used as well. They used to be found in large quantities in the Thames and huge shoals were caught at Greenwich and Blackwall during July and August. Until 1895 Ministers of the Crown had a whitebait dinner provided by the Trafalgar Tavern in Greenwich (Lord Nelson's body was brought to Greenwich to lie in state), and the Opposition were provided with the same at the Old Ship Tavern.

At least half a pound (227 grammes) whitebait should be allowed per person. Keep the whitebait in a cold place before using, then wash and dry them very thoroughly. Have enough seasoned flour in a large plastic bag, then shake a handful at a time in the flour. Do this just before frying, for they become soggy if left. Heat up oil in a deep-fryer until a faint blue haze comes from it, then fry a handful of whitebait at a time in a frying basket for 2 to 3 minutes. When ready, drain on paper or a rack and keep in a warm place until all are done, then put all the whitebait together into the frying basket for 1-2 minutes until crisp. Serve at once with salt, brown bread and butter and wedges of lemon. Iced champagne or punch was drunk with them. When served with cayenne pepper liberally sprinkled over them they are called Devilled Whitebait.

While waiting for the whitebait to be cooked, at Green­wich a fish soup called Souchet or Souchy (from the Flemish Waterzootje) was served. Souchet is a clear fish soup flavoured with parsley, peppercorns, a little onion and slices of lemon, and served with hot brown toast'.

Swigg's Hotel for whitebait dinners, King William Walk, Greenwich, 1885

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