What on earth is whitebait?

sardine (2)

You would think that food was a fairly straightforward topic, but to be honest there are large areas of cooking knowledge that I have never really grasped. Topside of beef; where’s that from? Where exactly is the brisket? I can see that pastry can be ‘puff’ if it contains plenty of air, but ‘short’? Is there correspondingly a long pastry?

At the moment the family’s head chef is enthusiastic for a new fish known as basa which usually comes filleted and dusted with oatmeal. If you are planning to eat the creature yourself it may be best to skip the rest of this paragraph, ignorance being bliss. It seems that the original owner of the flesh is a catfish which, although found wild, is widely farmed in Vietnam and south-east Asia. Basa, also called river cobbler, is mainly distributed by supermarkets as a cheaper substitute for their increasingly expensive white-fish species such as cod and haddock. The flesh of the basa is generally described as mild and delicate which I imagine is chef’s speak for not tasting of anything very much. Certainly I enjoy it most when accompanied by a rich prawn sauce. The basa is potamodromous which means in migrates solely within fresh water. There’s no denying that it has proved to be an international success being easy and cheap to fillet, package and keep fresh. If you don’t have any rooted objection to river fish in general, or catfish in particular, you might care to try it, but perhaps not with chips and mushy peas.

As far as I can see basa is a single species which goes by the not terribly memorable scientific name of Pangasius bocourti. Personally I much prefer the oily fish of the herring family for taste but I’m often somewhat baffled as to which species I am actually eating. I would now like to provide you with the results of my research into this topic. There is a family of fish, with about 200 species, called the Clupeidae of which the most commercially important species is the herring. Personally I first met this family in the dark days after the Second World War when large quantities of sardines, tinned in oil, were imported from, if I remember correctly, Portugal. Surprisingly I liked them. The enthusiasm has continued and with my diet chef away enjoying herself I might sneak a tin for supper today.

My next exposure to a member of this group, the pilchard, was at my junior school. Pilchards came tinned in tomato sauce and were served with a mix of beetroot, tomato and sliced cabbage which the cooks were pleased to describe as salad. In truth this was a modest fish with much to be modest about. My mother and father said pilchards were much nicer than the wartime sneok, so I suppose I should be grateful that I have never had to eat sneok. The only redeeming feature of the tinned pilchard was that the body fell apart easily on handling and one could perform a spectacularly good dissection with even a fork and blunt knife.

Strictly speaking the sardine and the pilchard are the same species (Sardina pilchardus – the European pilchard), the sardine simply being younger and smaller. I should add that my first encounter with the freshly cooked fish of this species, prepared in a Greek restaurant, changed my appreciation of it entirely. The equivalent of sainthood, if you are a pilchard, is an appearance in the Cornish delicacy of stargazy pie. There are several recipes but the essential common feature is that the fish stick their heads through the pie crust with their eyes visible. Consequently the cold pie will see you through the week.

There is a potential complication here since the tinned or canned sardines in supermarkets may be the brisling or European sprat (Sprattus sprattus), or even the young of the herring (Clupea harengus). So read the small print on the tin. With me so far? So the brisling or European sprat. This fish is commonly eaten fried whole in Britain, and oddly enough, Bulgaria. They generally come from Scottish or Norwegian waters. What you do is fry the little chaps for a few minutes whole, in butter, until the flesh is no longer pink. You should eat their heads, bones and everything. Sophisticated palates may welcome the addition of back pepper and parsley, with tartare sauce on the side, but in reality they’re not much harder to prepare than bacon although presumably much healthier.

The Atlantic herring (Clupea harengus) will be familiar to you in most of its forms, being eaten fresh, salted, smoked and pickled. It was once the world’s most widely exploited fish and untold millions were caught in the North Sea alone. The herring moves in large shoals and in Britain the ‘silver darlings’ were exploited right up the east coast as far as Shetland, and than down the west to the Hebrides and Ireland. The fish-wives and girls who gutted herrings and packaged them in barrels were noted for the directness of their speech, the strength of their forearms and, in a slightly different category, their choirs. They undertook hard and unremitting work that few would fancy, or be capable of, today. So bless them say I.

One reason for the success of the herring was the fecundity of the females who laid eggs by the ten thousand. Also separate shoals of herring are spawning at different times throughout the year so that there is a continuously renewed supply of fry. I assume that this accounts for the fact that in the past soft roes (male) and hard roes (female) were also fairly regularly available. 

The greatest success for the herring fishery was the last half of the nineteenth century; since that time the numbers of herring have been drastically reduced by over-fishing, but are now believed to be making something of a recovery. Smoked herrings are marketed as kippers (gutted and split along the dorsal spine) and bloaters (smoked whole). I believe the UK is the only nation that ever eats kippers for breakfast, not that I am allowed anything for that meal myself except fresh berries and low fat yoghurt.

Rollmops are rolled herring fillets preserved in brine and vinegar with the addition of peppercorns and other spices. They are really a German and Scandinavian speciality. Many years ago Phil and I went out to dinner and were served rollmops with cold schnapps as the starter. I ate and drank mine, with slight reluctance, but then in the hostess’s absence Phil told me that I had to eat and drink hers as well. I just managed it but I think as a result I had some excuse for the nightmare of drunkenness, and indeed violence, that ensued. A red herring is a false or distracting clue in a crime novel. A kipper is red I suppose; could you use one to lay a false scent for a dog? In Scandinavia the herring is canned young like the true sardine and called sild. The name seems to come from the Old Norse word for the fish. When I was in Shetland there were fish called sillock whose name could easily have the same origin, but these are a variety of the unrelated pollock.

Whitebait are meant to be very juvenile herrings but I don’t see how, at that age, they could be reliably distinguished from the young of any of the species I have mentioned. They are normally cooked by flouring and deep frying and, along with prawn cocktail, represent fishy starters in unimaginative restaurants. All you need is a large supply of deep frozen product and a few lemon slices and you’re ready to go.

Finally there is a related species, the Pacific Herring (Clupea pallasii) which I assume we are only liable to encounter if we eat tinned fish from Canada or the USA. The salty miracle known as the European anchovy (Engraulis encrasicolus) may resemble a small herring but is in fact from a quite separate family of fish. So, better informed, pour yourself a large glass of Sauvignon Blanc, thickly butter some fresh crusty bread, and get started.


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