An early start sees me blearily hail a cab from my London hotel at 5.30am, whisking me off through the almost traffic-free city streets to Billingsgate Market. As a Londoner originally, I’ve been to most of the big names in my time; Smithfield’s with hulking great sides of meat carried by equally hulking beast of men; Spitalfield’s fruit and veg market and Old Covent Garden. The latter in the mid 70s where wolf whistles were accepted with a smile along with a flower or two. A chatty 20 minute cab ride later, I’m making my way through the neon lit pre-dawn to Billingsgate Seafood School. I have to thank Joanne, who deals with all the admin, for letting me join the tour part of the Catch of the Day course, as I’m unable to take fish away with me there is no point in doing the whole four hours.
After I’ve donned a white coat, it’s a cup of coffee in the classroom with nine other participants. I strike up a conversation with a lovely Kiwi called Sarah. For those of you who think I have the best job in the world – WRONG! She must have – working on a small yacht cooking for six crew and six guests; money no object, she has free range to buy from some of the best places around the Med. I’m jealous.
Adam Whittle is our guide this morning and he briefly chats about what we will be doing, explaining that the procedure for filleting changes with the shape of the fish and it doesn’t matter what size they are the same method applies. He asks if we’d like to pool £10 each so he can buy three different types of fish. Makes perfect sense, get a better deal buying by the box and practicing knife skills on cheaper fish. Why butcher an expensive turbot when we can hone our technique on several plaice?
We watch the market from above as he gives some insights about Billingsgate. With about 40 – 50 independent traders, there is a huge variety of fish, shellfish and seafood from our cooler native waters to warmer seas and oceans of hotter climes.
Did you know, globally 50% of the fish we eat is farmed? I didn’t. He explains that wild fish is unpredictable in quality yet still commands a high price tag and with the spawning season now past, October to March is the best time to buy. Farmed offers the buyer a consistent quality throughout the year and is of course decidedly cheaper. Prices fluctuate depending on the weather conditions when the boats go out. Adam informs us that they are on the high side today, because of the tail end of hurricane, Katia is still affecting fishing conditions.
The place is not only full of character but also full of colourful characters. We stop at one supplier with whiskers that a walrus would be proud of. There are boxes of fish that are local to our waters: salmon, sea bass and bream, gurnard, grey mullet, squid, plaice, pouting, mackerel, all of which are promoted by the school. Even in such an international market, its great to see local and seasonal produce being championed.
There are imported, air freighted exotics like parrot fish, barracuda, surgeonfish, snappers and groupers. Nowt wrong with that as many ethnic communities rely on these fish and who are we to say they can’t? We’re shown what to look for in fresh fish; most of us are aware of the difference between the good and the not so good – clear sparkling eyes, red gills, bright red blood, briny not fishy smell, rigidity (rigor mortis is a good sign) and slime that is clear.
We split into two groups and I join the ensemble lead by a well-respected member of the time-honoured Worshipful Company of Fishmongers, Barry O’Toole, who is not only very knowledgeable, but spins a good yarn. He explains how to recognise good filleted fish, using a side of salmon as his example.
Did you know that farmed salmon comes in a variety of colours depending on what the fish farmer requires? Starting at 1, which is pale pink right through to 35, that I guess, would be deep coral red. The colour we associate with salmon is about 24/25 on the scale. From the wild, it would be the colour of human skin – a very pale pink. We stop at Billy’s stall, a cheeky, chirpy chappie who gives as good as he gets. Next under scrutiny are scallops. These are expensive wee beasties and there are cheaper ones to be had. Barry explains how to spot if they have been soaked to plump them up and lighten their colour. Unadulterated scallops are the colour of grubby opals with vibrant coral, soaked are plumper, whiter but the real giveaway is the coral looks tired and washed out. They also exude moisture.
Stopping at another stall, we a confronted by hake, and, as Barry explains it looks as if it’s seen better days. The fish is flabby, the flesh is soft, the gills are bordering on black; all in all not a good sign – uh ah, this fish is in prime condition. Hake is a soft-fleshed fish, best cut into steaks to cook. So how do you tell if it’s good to eat? “Easy,” says Barry. “The slime that coats it should be snot-like, when cut the blood should be bright and of course your nose will tell you if it’s fresh or not.” This fish ain’t ever going to win a beauty contest, but it certainly is popular appearing on many a restaurant menu. Our attention is turned to a box of sprats. As he runs his hands through the shiny fish, they move freely denoting they are very fresh. Picking one up, Barry makes it jump from his fingers another indication of freshness. “If they feel sticky and clump together go look for another fishmonger,” he’s says with a smile.
It’s now 7.30am and the tour draws to a close. I’ve learnt so much in a couple of hours and the two men, Adam and Barry have such knowledge and passion, it humbles me.
Heading up to the classroom for another quick coffee, I watch Adam tip out his catch of the day. The remaining nine will be filleting a box of über fresh plaice, two boxes of silvery iridescent mackerel, stiff with rigour and a box of coral pink gurnard. I wish I could join them, but my day is booked with other interesting things. So, I bid farewell to the group, head out into a driech day and join commuters on their journey into town. It’s 8.15am and I’ve been up for almost four hours. What a great way to start the day!
Billingsgate Seafood Training School
020 7517 3548
© Lea Harris, Off the Eaten Track 2011