White on! Tomorrow (Friday) mark the start of National Seafood Week (October 6 -13). But here in South Essex foodies don’t need much encouraging when it comes to savouring the catch of our seas. We have our oysters, out jellied eels and our mouth-watering cockles of course.

But recently the focus, fish wise- has been all about Whitebait, thanks to the return of Southend ‘s historic Whitebait festival.

Whitebait are effectively baby herring - tiny, immature, silvery members of the herring group that are typically deep-fried and often served with brown bread and butter and garnished with lemon and cayenne pepper. The species has been continuously caught from the Thames Estuary for centuries and Southend has a long tradition with the seafood.

The spawning grounds for whitebait are today found just off Southend Pier and this is practically the only place at which this fish is caught, with the exception of small quantities at Morecambe Bay in Lancashire. At one time the centre of the whitebait industry was Greenwich. This was thanks to the pollution of the Thames at Greenwich and Blackwell producing the best whitebait in the world. Later the water content changed and the infant whitebait died. The teeming nurseries then went down to near Southend.

Until 1884 an annual Whitebait Festival was held at Greenwich or Blackwell and traditionally attended by leading politicians. Marking the close of the parliamentary sessions, it was held on Whit Monday or the nearest convenient day.

The festival then moved to Essex - revived in 1934 by the Southend Chamber of Commerce, Trade and Industry. The festival would always open with the ‘blessing of the catch’, with ministers of five denominations taking part, and was held at the end of Southend Pier until it was damaged by fire in 1976. After the blessing a whitebait lunch was served, attended by the Mayor, MPs and other local dignitaries, which was followed by an evening banquet.

Today the event is celebrated over a more modest lunch rather than a lavish dinner, however, the festival is treated with the same respect for tradition as always.

Southend dignitaries gathered for the 2017 festival last week to watch local fisherman haul in nets of whitebait.

Keeping to tradition the catch was then blessed by a member of the clergy, Gavin Dixon, Leader of Kings Church in Southend, before being prepared, cooked and served at the festival lunch held at the Sands Restaurant on Southend seafront.

Denise Rossiter, chief executive of Essex Chambers of Commerce said “This traditional event remains ever popular with Essex Chambers of Commerce members and their guests and the weather was beautiful too for late September. Attendees enjoyed a three course lunch with, of course, whitebait as one of the starter choices. Even the seagulls enjoyed a tasty treat when a large plateful of fresh whitebait was returned to the sea as part of the ceremony.

“It is a real honour for us to host the Whitebait Festival, which is probably one of the oldest traditions in Southend.”

Take the bait- here’s a couple of whitebait recipes for you to try at home..

Crispy Whitebait


500g whitebait

1 tablespoon Chinese cooking wine

15g fresh root ginger, finely chopped

1 spring onion, finely chopped

75g cornflour

75g plain flour

1 egg

200ml ice cold sparkling water

1 teaspoon Jenny Songs Mala powder

salt to taste

vegetable oil, for frying


Wash the whitebait, place in a bowl and add the wine, ginger and spring onion. Mix well and leave for 30 minutes.

2.Sift the cornflour and plain flour into a bowl, Make a depression in the middle and slowly stir in the egg. Slowly stir in the water and beat well with chopstick until you have a smooth, airy batter. Stir in the MaLa powder and salt to taste.

3.Heat vegetable oil at least 1 inch (2.5 cm) deep in a pan until almost smoking. One by one coat the whitebait in the batter and lay into the oil. Keep the whitebait moving in the pan turning over until golden brown. Remove them on to kitchen paper as they become golden brown.

Whitebait tagliatelle


400g Whitebait

200 g Tagliatelle pasta, (fresh)

Parmesan cheese, (freshly grated)

Flat leaf (Italian) parsley

For the sauce

2 Tbsp Butter

2 Shallots, (finely chopped)

2 cloves Garlic, (finely chopped)

1 cup Chardonnay

300 ml Cream

Nutmeg, (freshly grated)

Sea salt and cracked black pepper, (to season)


1. Make the sauce by melting the butter in a medium-sized saucepan and add the shallots to the butter.

2. Add the garlic and wine and reduce by boiling to half the amount.

3. Add the cream and peppercorns and reduce again for a few minutes.

4. Add salt and nutmeg to taste and keep warm.

5. Cook the pasta until al dente and drain. Cook the whitebait in the hot sauce for one minute.

6. Twirl the pasta into the centre of four warm plates, pile whitebait on top, spoon on some sauce and top with parmesan and parsley.