Sunday, 20 October 2013


What is it about the English and fish?  Think about the great, ancient markets of London: Covent Garden and Smithfield, with their porters, bustle and banter, both have an air of romance about them, are part of the image of Englishness.  Not so Billingsgate.  Even in its "new" location, it crouches at the feet of the gleaming modern cathedrals of commerce that make up Canary Wharf, seemingly cast in the role of ugly sister. And Old Billingsgate  was  apparently "a place apart" with a very different set of traditions. 
 "That it was a place apart from the rest of London is not in doubt;
here, in an atmosphere of reeking fish, with fish-scales underfoot,
and a shallow lake of mud all around,
specific types and traditions had sprung up.
There were the 'wives' of Billingsgate
who dressed in strong stuff gowns and quilted petticoats;
called 'fish fags' they smoked small pipes of tobacco,
took snuff, drank gin and were known for their colourful language."
(From Peter Ackroyd: London: The Biography)

It is just after 5:30am.  Canary  Wharf is still; silent; office windows are glowing but empty. However, Billingsgate is bustling with activity, and it's been going full tilt here for several hours already.  The car park is full; anonymous, dripping white boxes are loaded into vans which disappear out of the gates onto the empty streets. A small group, bleary eyed, yawning and clearly unused to life at this hour), gathers to take the Catch of the Day Class run by the Billingsgate Seafood Training School.

First, a tour of the market, led by CJ Jackson, fish doyenne, Director of the Seafood Training Course and writer of such classics as Leith's Fish Bible (she is a former vice principal of Leith's) and The Billingsgate Market Cookbook; it is her hand clutching the monster lobster below. 
At first glance, Billingsgate is nothing like the great, glistening open air fish markets of Spain or Venice. This isn't about display, the gaudy arrangements designed to seduce the casual passing eye.  Rather, this is about shifting merchandise, the practical packaging and sale of goods in large quantities to specialist purchasers. However, the fish are sparkling fresh, each eye is translucent, every scale shines like a tiny jewel.  The whole place smells of the sea. And everywhere you turn there is a different shape or colour or size.
For a couple of hours we are bombarded with facts about Billingsgate (the largest inshore fish market in UK, with one of the widest selections of fish in the world), about fish in general (the difference between Canadian and British lobsters and how to grow eels), while dodging porters and trolleys and ice.  Weirdly, both George Orwell (in the 1930s) and the Kray twins (1950s) have worked at Billingsgate. 
By 8:00am, the market is over and it is time to climb upstairs for breakfast in the Cookery School - a spicy kedgeree.  Then it is on to learning knife skills, creating a fish stock for bouillabaisse, filleting flat and round fish and cooking. Even those most squeamish at the start are soon de-scaling and hoicking out guts insouciantly while sipping glasses of wine and comparing the neatness of knife work.

A Gurnard is first up for filleting
The team in action
The joys of working with squid

Once the preparation is done, the cooking takes over and the resident chef demonstrates just how versatile fish can be - and how quick and easy each dish is to put together.  While she cooks, we watch over our bubbling vats of bouillabaisse.
Bouillabaisse in preparation

Plaice parcels stuffed with tomatoes and pesto ready to go into the oven
Baked Hake and chorizo
Grilled chilli mackerel

Our time is up. We have scraped, sliced, gouged, assembled and watched the experts in action.  All that is left is to enjoy the chilled rose, slurp our very own bouillabaisse and share personal triumphs and disasters - and above all to celebrate the wonders of fish.  Then, rather like the traders at the crack of dawn, we bag up our fish and head home.

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