Getting up at 4am is not a normal occurrence at Chez L’abeille, but when you want to see one of London’s historic markets in action it’s essential. I was heading to the Billingsgate Market Seafood Training School to take part in their “morning catch” class, which includes a tour of the market in full action, hence the (very) early start!
Having caught the first tube from Southwark (05.31am, should you need to know) to Canary Wharf, my first impression of the market, as I headed over the bridge towards the main gate, was the smell of very fresh fish. My second impression was just how busy it was at 6am, although because of the upcoming Easter weekend, today was apparently especially busy. Billingsgate is a “free and open” market, which means anyone can go there to buy fish and with 98 stands and 30 shops there’s plenty to buy.
As the rather bleary eyed class gradually assembled, we were sent off to walk around the stalls and buy the fish we would learn how to prepare later. The choice was vast*. There are stalls which focus on mainly British species and others who specialise in the warmer water fishes of the world, ones who only do shellfish or just frozen produce. The boxes of fish are often labelled with their port of origin and I did spot a little bit of Cornwall in a pile of “falfish” boxes. After much deliberation and because a cup of tea beckoned, I decided to go for the rather scary looking gurnard, a fish I wouldn’t normally buy because I know little about how to handle it. More of that later!
The second part of the class was a guided tour of the market and I was lucky to be in the group taken around by Robert, one of the market inspectors – a man who appeared to be hugely respected by the merchants and whose knowledge of all things fish seems to be limitless! Things I learnt from this part of the class:
- The merchants get to work around midnight and trade amongst themselves as well as with wholesalers. Trading formally starts at 4am, when a bell is sounded
- *The market sells around 150 different species of fish, both native to the waters around the British Isles and from further afield
- Always buy “dry” scallops – you will get more for your money
- North America does not use the roe on scallops (which we agreed was a complete error on their part)
- The minimum size for a king scallop in the UK is 100 millimetres across the widest part
- The stiffness of the fish, the colour of the slime, the brightness of the eyes, the colour of the gills and the redness of the blood all help to show how fresh a fish really is
- Fish going beyond their freshest point can, literally, become “green around the gills”!
By around 8.30 it was time to head back to the training room and a welcome breakfast of kippers, toast and tea! Then the work of filleting our fish began. I was quite surprised to see that handling the gurnard was in fact one of the easier techniques to learn and as several of us had bought the same fish we were soon skinning and gutting them with gusto. I was a little alarmed to find my fish had a bit of a “cod worm” attack (apparently not a problem – I’m still unsure!) but I’ll definitely be eyeing up the gurnard in the fishmongers from now on!
©Chez l’abeille 2015