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Whitebait & Souchet

Going back a few years - 1965 to be precise - when I was attempting to conquer the world, I took the then love of my life to a dinner and dance invitation at the Park Lane Hotel, in London. It was a formal affair and we were both dressed accordingly, as I was hoping to impress the host of my capabilities. During the course of the evening we escaped to the bar, got on the barman’s famous Tom Collins cocktails (a first) and failed to return to the dance. The business opportunity was lost.

That was the start of one of those unforgettable weekends, which I could ill afford but was not going to allow mere cash or lack of it break the spell. Live now - pay later was my adage in those days.  On the following evening we dined at the Savoy and the whitebait (another first) was recommended as starter. I remember we drank champagne with the whitebait but I do not recall the courses that followed, which goes to prove that it is not always the most expensive or exotic of foods which one remembers but sometimes the most humble. Of course, being a gentleman, I have never forgotten the young lady.

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 estuary 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, and the Opposition were provided with the same at the Old Ship Tavern.


At least 227 gram (½ Ib) of 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 it begins to smoke, 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.

If served with cayenne pepper liberally sprinkled over them they are called Devilled Whitebait.


Prior to the whitebait, a fish soup called Souchet (from the Flemish Waterzootje, which is usually a chicken based soup) can be served. Souchet is a clear soup flavoured with parsley, peppercorns, a little onion and slices of lemon. It was possibly introduced to London in the seventeenth century, during the reign of William of Orange.
450 grams,  (1 lb) white fish bones, skin and heads
600 ml (1 pint) water
150 ml white
12 black peppercorns
Bunch of chopped parsley
Boqucet of fresh
450 grams Fillets of place or whiting cut into large bite size pieces
1large lemon

1. Place the fish trimmings in a large pan and add the water, wine and salt. Bring to the boil and skim.
2. Add the peppercorns, most of the parsley, fresh herbs and bay leaf. Simmer for 40 minutes.
3. Strain through a fine sieve and reserve the liquid.
4. Place the fish fillets in a clean pan and add the strained stock. Bring to the boil and simmer for 10-15 minutes.
5. Serve some fish in each warmed soup bowl. Add the juice of half the lemon to the stock - Fly at a Smile-Price