Small fry can be a big treat
“Ruling a large kingdom is like cooking a small fish – handle it with a light touch and never overdo it.” - Lao-Tzu
As mentioned in a previous post, it was Dr Louis Leipoldt’s entertaining collection of essays on South African food, “Polfyntjies vir die proe”, which started my evolution into a foodie. One could argue that these musings, published in the Afrikaans weekly “Huisgenoot” made Dr Leipoldt the first South African food blogger! In his piece on our fresh water fish was a paragraph I will never forget. He waxed lyrical about shoals of a small fish (I suspect he was referring to “ghielemientjies”, a miniature yellowfish) no more than an inch or two long that he would scoop up with a pillowcase or mosquito net for his dinner. He claimed that, fried in smoky hot ox drippings, they were “far superior to Thames Whitebait”. It would take me another 25 years before I actually tasted Whitebait, but it was one of my earliest Bucket List entries.
Whitebait is a prized delicacy in the Anglo-Saxon world, but it is just one of several classic dishes made with very small fish. Some employ deep-frying, others poaching or boiling and yet others smoking and/or pickling. In this week’s post I would like to tell you more about these tasty little critters.
“Whitebait” is a generic term, and does not refer to any particular species of fish, but rather their size. Shoals of sprats, silversides, herring, mullet, smelt, mackerel and sardines ranging in size from 25 – 50mm – normally netted in estuaries or harbours - are sold as Whitebait. They are normally eaten whole; simply dusted with flour and deep-fried in piping hot oil or fat. Like the small fish used in the famous London dish, most Whitebait are caught in estuarine waters, but there are a few fresh water species that are top notch too. In the latter category, the Pejerrey (smelt) of the Andean lakes is first among equals.
Several of the species that make up the ranks of Whitebait are actually larger fish when mature (viz. herring, mullet and mackerel) and thus specimens in the target size are sexually immature. Uncontrolled netting of nursery shoals will therefore lead to local extinction, and many countries have imposed strict regulations to try and nurture breeding stocks.
Down Under, Whitebait is a specific kind of fish: members of the genus Galaxias. These fish are collectively known as “whitebait”, and live most of their lives in rivers. Their fertilised eggs are carried out to sea during the rainy season, where the juveniles hatch. On their return to the estuaries, they are harvested by Aborigine and Maori communities. This harvest is celebrated with ritual “whitebait boil-ups”.
The term goujon is French for “gudgeon” or “minnow”. It originally only denoted the tiny freshwater fish which are rolled in flour and deep-fried whole as petite friture – hence the English term “small fry” which is derived from this famous French dish. Nowadays goujon is also used when referring to larger fish cut into gudgeon-sized strips.
In France, there are two major branches to the friture tree: small freshwater fish from the Loire and its tributaries, and tiny sardines from the Mediterranean. Provençals refer to the latter as mange-tout (“eat-everything”), and barbecue them on “grids” made of grape vines. Freshwater small fry (mostly juvenile shad, dace and perch) are cooked the same way as English Whitebait.
Sild & Brisling
Although marketed as “sardines”, these extremely tasty little fishes (along with sprats and capelin) are strictly speaking a separate branch of the herring family. Sild is in fact Norwegian for “herring”. They occur in large – but declining – shoals off Norway, and are sought after the world over. They are lightly smoked before being tinned in vegetable oil, and are popular ingredients of snack platters and Smørgasbord everywhere.
The Brisling (Clupea sprattus) is the smaller and more delicate-tasting of the two, but many people prefer the more pronounced taste of Sild (Clupea harengus). Brisling is the more expensive, as they are normally caught in summer when they are in prime condition; plump and packed with fragrant oil. They are also smaller, softer and thin-skinned, which means that they require more sophisticated processing techniques.
Germany is often perceived as a country short on seafood and seafood dishes, where everyone eats pork, potatoes and cabbage. This is most certainly not true of Northwest Germany, home to famous port cities like Hamburg, Kiel and Bremen where the locals are just as gaga over seafood as their neighbours in Scandinavia and the Low Countries. While they have many species in common with other countries on the North Sea and Baltic, the iconic German fish is the Kieler Sprot (Sprattus sprattus). Only sprats caught in the Bay of Kiel may carry this exalted denomination.
Some of the catch is eaten fresh (fried or grilled) in homes and restaurants in the immediate vicinity, but the bulk is smoked and tinned. Unlike the Norwegians, the Germans like their Sprotten strongly smoked, which imparts lots of flavour and a distinctive deep golden colour. Even though one pays a premium for a rare delicacy like this, they remain one of my all-time favourite Tapas.
To those of us without ties to the Netherlands, these succulent juvenile herrings (Clupea harengus) are indelibly associated with “rollmops” – pickled filets of herring rolled up and skewered. This is however but one of many ways of serving herring – actually a variant on “Bismarck Herring” - and maatjes are seldom preserved; most are eaten fresh! The herrings caught by the Dutch trawler fleet are categorised as maatjes (“maagdelijk” or virginal), volle haring (ready to spawn) or ijle haring (skinny, spawned-out fish). For the purposes of this post, I will confine myself to the former. Herrings are of huge importance to countries on the North Sea litoral, and are the raw material for rollmops, kippers, bloaters and Arbroath Smokies. EU edicts on fishing rights have granted Denmark the lion’s share of the annual quota, but the Dutch still dominate the trading and processing of herring.
The first catches are made in June, and Dutch gourmets insist that these precious little fish are best simply gutted and eaten raw. For the less adventurous, the options are to fry, broil or bake them, or to preserve them through hot or cold smoking or – preferably – curing them in brine. Herring are not just tasty and versatile, but also packed with vitamins, minerals and Omega 3 unsaturated fatty acids. They are caught using sustainable techniques, and stocks are relatively stable.
The dainty anchovy is another fish that is grossly stereotyped in South Africa. It is generally regarded as the raw material for poultry feed, fertiliser and fish paste, and some adventurous souls might have a few anchovy filets on their pizza for extra saltiness. But go to the Mediterranean, and you will see this humble little fish come into its own. Think of Baguette with Anchovy Butter, Caesar Salad, Pasta Putanesca, Italian Salsa Verde, Salade Nicoise or Anchoïade – it is ubiquitous.
First prize is to get hold of fresh anchovies and make Alici Fresche Marinate (cured white anchovy). This popular Italian dish has local versions in Provence, Croatia and the Greek Isles. All entail gutting the fish, and curing it in a mixture of lemon juice (Italy, Croatia and Greece) or white wine vinegar (France and Spain) combined with sea salt, pepper, olive oil, chilli, garlic and parsley. It is traditionally eaten with seasonal local side dishes like artichokes, potato salad or tomato salad. One of the most memorable seafood meals I ever had was at a tiny restaurant in Palermo’s old fish market: Alici Marinate, artichoke hearts and an ice-cold bottle of crisp Müller-Thurgau from a winery near Mount Etna.
Sardines and pilchards are closely related members of the herring family. “True” sardines are simply the smaller specimens (maximum 15cm) of any of the dozen or so Sardina, Sardinella and Sardinops species. They are most highly prized in the Bay of Biscay and the Western Mediterranean. In Provence and Liguria, sardines are barbecued, while Catalans like them marinated anchovy style. Sardines simply tinned in olive oil are much beloved in Tapas bars all over Spain, and equally popular in Portugal.
The larger pilchards are mainly tinned with a tomato or chilli sauce, sold as frozen bait or processed as fish meal. Chile, Peru, Namibia and South Africa are the biggest producers of pilchards. I, for one, do not turn up my nose at pilchards. The tinned variety makes a lightning-fast kedgeree (the best cure for a hangover) while fresh or thawed fish are absolutely scrumptious when barbecued and served with Portuguese-style boiled potatoes with onion, green peppers and tomato.
Elvers are the juvenile stage in the life cycle of the European eel (Anguilla anguilla). These mysterious creatures spawn in the Sargasso Sea, more than 4 000km SW of Europe, and their leaf-like larvae are carried to the mouths of rivers like the Loire, Scheldt and Rhine. En route they undergo a metamorphosis, turning into silvery, matchstick-sized miniature eels. They are now ready to make their way upstream until they find a suitable habitat to live in until they reach sexual maturity. This journey can be long and tough – some eels finally make their way to streams in the Swiss Alps! At about 10 years of age the adults make the return journey to the Bermudas, where they spawn and then die.
It is during the elver stage that eels fetch the highest prices; in Spain Tapas bar patrons gladly pay the equivalent of €300 per kg for elvers au vinaigrette on toasted bread! I find this practice objectionable, not just because of its extravagance but – more importantly – because it cannot be sustainable to harvest the juveniles of a species on a grand scale. This is particularly true of the eel, which is already rare, and whose migratory routes are so easy to interdict.
Chile is home to two species of Pejerrey or smelt: a tiny marine fish (Odontesthes regia), and a larger fresh water namesake (Odontesthes bonariensis). It is the salt water species (called “Peruvian Silverside” by Gringos) that is of interest here. I will never forget my first experience of this divine little fish. Jakki and I bought two dozen of them on the fish market in Iquique (Northern Chile), and for a paltry few pesos the fishmonger’s son beheaded, gutted and butterflied each little fish in a flash. Dipped in flour and deep-fried, they came close to eclipsing the Lenguado (flounder) we had recently eaten!
The Cisco or Lake Herring (Coregonus artedi) is a freshwater member of the vast Salmonidae family; closely related to the larger Lake Whitefish. Both used to be abundant in the Great Lakes of the USA and Canada, but over-exploitation and the appearance of invasive species like lampreys and alewives have reduced their numbers substantially. The Cisco used to be the basis of a commercial trawler fishery in the lakes of Quebec, but this has collapsed because of declining catches. Recreational fishermen still net them for non-commercial use, and enjoy them pan-fried or smoked.
The Kapenta or Tanganyika Sardine (Limnothrissa miodon) was successfully introduced to Lakes Kariba and Cahora Bassa in the 1960s and 1980s respectively, and today supports commercial fisheries on both. As it is a pelagic fish from the depths of Lake Tanganyika, it spends its days in very deep water. Fishermen lure them closer to the surface at night by shining powerful lights on the water, where they are then netted.
Kapenta is an invaluable food source in large parts of Southern Africa. Because the majority of the rural population doesn’t have access to electricity, the bulk of the annual catch is salted and sun-dried. It is then sold on village markets far and wide, and forms the basis of wholesome stews much like the Mopani worm does in rural Limpopo Province. The more expensive frozen product is widely used as ersatz Whitebait, or marinated with salt, vinegar, chillis and garlic.
“Madness, like small fish, runs in immense hosts.” – Philip K Dick.