Thursday, 28 August 2014

White Gold #2

And probably the true white gold going by the price per kilo of this tiny little delicacy that has had ‘baiters’ fighting for space on riverbanks around New Zealand these past two weeks. Not only are they being very wary about giving anything away about where their “spot’ might be but also keeping very tight lipped on how successful they might have been. Their prize is the tiny transparent whitebait that run in shoals upstream each spring to spawn and can sell from $70-80 a kilo.

Whitebaiters may be very coy, that is until you reveal that you’re not there to fish and that you just happen to be passing through the area just as the season has opened. Then the twinkle in the eye & the animated discussions reveal the trials & tribulations & that there have been a few big runs already and so early in the season.

The ultimate Kiwi delicacy, whitebait is an iconic part of our heritage where the start of the 3 month season is looked forward to all year by die-hard whitebaiters up and down the country. Once a whitebaiter, always a whitebaiter; with nothing more than a net & some luck on your side some ‘baiters fish every day from dawn until dusk, rain or shine, dreaming of that big run. Many rough it in the great outdoors, setting up camp along the many waterways.

My mother’s family have a long history of whitebaiting in Hawkes Bay, some still regularly whitebait. My grandfather was the epitome of Barry Crump’s “ A Good Keen Man”. From high in the mountains reaching down to the sea, if it moved, it was shot or caught, killed and eaten and if there was anything left over it was sold off down at the pub. Whitebait was no exception, I learnt the art of whitebaiting (sitting & waiting patiently) from my grandfather. Against regulations, he would have multiple whitebait stands on the river and he protected these by manning each with a son or daughter, or a grandchild (some of us are of the same generation). It was great being outdoors but I’m sure we must have got bored because I do remember once having a whitebait eating competition with my uncle. That's live whitebait, straight out of the net. And out of sight of grandad of course! 

So when this “home kill” butchery with the strong message, which we pass every day, changed one of the window signs we were quick to stop. It had been caught that morning and about a kilometre down the road where we’d seen a regular procession of whitebaiters vehicles lined up everytime we’d passed over the bridge.

$35 for half a kilo (plus a couple of extra spoonfulls for free) and I had enough whitebait to try out a number of recipes I had filed away for exactly this event!

Most people have whitebait in fritters, but there are quite a few different ideas of what the batter should be made up of. Whatever the batter, it mustn’t mask the delicate flavour of the whitebait. Some people swear by just a beaten egg, others add flour and some add just breadcrumbs.

My first lot of fritters were two whisked eggs, a tablespoon of lemon juice, salt and pepper to taste. I made a yoghurt (should have been sour cream but I had none), horseradish cream, dill & chopped capers which was tasty but totally unnecessary as it killed the flavour. I didn’t wash the fish (I thought that would also kill the flavour) but we both thought the flavour had quite a strong fishy taste (funny that). I think I should have also cooked the fritter for a little longer as they were a little “wet” in the centre. I was worried about overcooking them.

Next was deep fried individual whitebait. A long time ago we had a  memorable meal at our favourite Christchurch restaurant (Saggio di vino), the entree was a half avocado with individual whitebait (about 15!) scattered across the top with a balsamic & olive oil dressing. It was delicious.

A salad (and a sliced pear) took the place of an avocado and I don’t have a deep fryer (not that the oil has to be too deep for these tiny things) so I fried them in pan after dusting them with seasoned flour. And I washed and dried the whitebait before flouring them, so they didn’t spit in the pan. It was an interesting exercise, I liked them straight out of the pan but they went cold immediately (obviously) and were a little chewy.

Next up and for the last of the whitebait, were fritters again. But this time it was a lightly beaten egg yolk & a tablespoon of flour plus seasoning with the stiffly beaten white folded in. This was the winner for both of us, lovely and light with a delicate flavour. Just as I dished up the last of the fritters I remembered a conversation I had had with someone on our travels who suggested a light drizzle of mint sauce enhanced the experience. I had to think hard about where and who and after a gentle prod from someone with a “mint sauce history”, I remembered it was while lined up at the whitebait stand at the Bluff Oyster Festival. So I added mint sauce to my fritters and by-crikey I liked it! Funny that, but not so unusual considering I am a Kiwi kid and once had mint sauce on everything.

And the person with the history? Rachel, David’s daughter once showed us how to get the last of the sauce to the top of the bottle. “You spin the bottle like this”, at arm's length around and around like a windmill. You just have to make sure you’ve shut the lid down firmly don’t you Rachel?


  1. Yum Yum. Mint sauce is interesting alternative. I sit hear with my mouth watering.

    1. Mine is too! Time to find some more :) I think home-made mint sauce would be even better too.


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