I love discovering London's hidden history and traditions, and so was delighted this fortnight, to be invited to an evening that celebrated this.
Mark Hix delivers a whitebait supper for the Tower RNLI on the Thames.
(All photos courtesy RNLI)
Acclaimed chef, restaurateur and food writer Mark Hix cooked up a Dickensian White Bait Supper, in celebration of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution's Fish Supper on the River Thames and also threw in a little history lesson.
Dining guests were informed that our historical White Bait Supper dated back to the late 18th century, when it became the custom for parliamentarians wanting a secret location for a private dinner conversation away from the prying eyes and ears of Westminster. They would apparently travel to Greenwich where several pubs made a specialty of whitebait, with Charles Dickens being a fan of the fresh fish caught in the Thames.
Whitebait suppers were first held by the Commissioners of Sewers, who oversaw the engineering projects carried out in and around Dagenham after the greatflood that inundated local marshland around the Thames in 1713.
This eventually led to a tradition of grand and formal political Whitebait Dinners, with ministers going by boat from Parliament, Liberals to the 'Trafalgar Inn', and Tories to the 'Ship'. Unfortunately when the Blackwall tunnel was built, most of the Inns were pulled down. The last Whitebait Dinner was in 1894. Mark told us that he discovered this 15 years ago, whilst researching which foods Londoners ate.
Joining me for dinner were 6 volunteer lifeboat crewmembers who had been called on a 'shout', whilst I chatted to Mark in the kitchen. RNLI volunteers miss over 8000 dinners each year, as they leave their friends and family and rush out to save lives at sea, or in tonight's case the River Thames. It was pouring with rain and as the bell went, the crew disappeared up the Thames in a matter of minutes. A man was in the water by Tower Bridge. Not sure if he jumped or fell, but he was taken away by the ambulance services once he was safely bought back to the station situated at Embankment.
Mark wasn't at all bombastic and scary like the celebrity chef's I've seen on TV. He was down to earth, jovial and happy to talk through the menu and give me some tips for my own fish supper.
Mark revealed that he loved the idea of cooking a fish supper for the crew, telling me that both he and his father before him had always supported the RNLI, having been bought up in Dorset. Cooking fish was easy and here are some of the tips Mark shared with me:
• You don't need to buy expensive fish - keep it simple.
• Always buy fresh fish.
• Always buy a whole fish and get the fish-monger to help you fillet the fish.
• From a sustainability perspective use the bones to make a delicious fish soup
Kicking off the four-course meal was Water Souchet; a soup traditionally made with large Thames fish such as flounder caught in the whitebait nets. It was deliciously buttery and Mark assured me it was very easy to make.
The main was Devilled whitebait with caper mayonnaise. The whitebait was dusted in cayenne peppers giving it a rich golden colour with a slight peppery taste - who knew the Thames had such treats (Sidebar; shame that we can no longer fished in the Thames due to pollution).
Alongside this we had soused sardines with smoked eel. (This was a big moment for me, as the idea of eel has always repelled me ever since seeing the canal at Camden dredged a few years ago, to the vision of thousands of squirming, slithering giant black eels!). The desert was sea buckthorn buttermilk pudding.
The food was fabulous and even though I'm not a huge fish fan, I've been inspired by the stories of the politicians meeting secretly and eating whitebait.
Might have to have to start my own secret supper club!
To view the TV highlights of the RNLI Fish Supper, tune in to London360;
- 7.00pm, 26th October ,Community Channel.
- 6.30am, 1st November, London Live.