Yesterday I spent the day at Billingsgate fish market and at the Billingsgate Seafood Training School under the loomimg towers of Canary Wharf in London. The market itself is pretty much over by 8am. I got there for 5.30 in the morning after a very early start (a 2am grueling trek down the M1 plus an equally exhausting trip back at 5pm).
I'd never been to this market before. Past trips to London never included such an early start to the day. But to someone who loves to fish and eat the things, this place is fab. I refrained from purchasing any fish, despite taking my massive coolbox down with me, preferring to wait for my next visit when I had gleaned some tips on what to look for when buying from these guys.
Not a huge place by any means, very cold and wet, ice and melted ice, dripping boxes etc. all over the place, and so noisy you couldn't hear yourself think, but the buzz in the place was great, as was the intoxicating smell of the ocean.
By 6.15 much of the choice fish had been sold to merchants, restaurant agents and chefs who had been in much earlier (opens around 5am) so many of the public punters, nicknamed the 'black bag brigade' by the trade, were picking over the fish and shellfish that was still for sale. Wednesday was not the best day to go to buy apparently, just in case you want to have a wander down next week.
Some of the stuff was very exotic, Barracuda, Parrot fish, huge Stripped Bass, caught from all over the world and shipped here for the locals who obviously love to eat these pretty fish you're more likely to expect to see whilst snorkelling off the coast of some hot country somewhere.
Billingsgate Seafood School offers loads of courses for chefs, people just interested in the fish and the market, and potential fishmongers wanting to learn knife skills and get an insight into the industry which, incidentally, is what I spent the day doing.
Much of the fish info was already under my belt but it was interesting to hear about the fishing industry from the fishmongers perspective. The rest of the chaps on the course with me were dabbling with the idea of opening some kind of fish shop in various spots around the country.
I don't think my interest in the MSC went down terribly well though. From what I heard yesterday, it seems that the fishing industry views those people who are interested in buying fish from a 'sustainable' source as being led cheifly by the current trends shown on the tv like Hugh FW's recent programmes, rather than their own conscience or moral choices.
I wonder if the fishing industry looks at bodies like the MSC (Marine Stewardship Council) with a bit of fear. The supermarkets have pretty much disposed of most high street fishmongers and the livelihood of thier owners so I suppose I'm not surprised that a lobbying organisation like the MSC are viewed with a twang of suspicion about where it's all going to lead.
One of the best things taught that day for me was regarding the signs of what to look for when looking for 'fresh' fish. When you're fishing and you're fortunate to hoy a fish big enough to eat out of the sea or lake, you know it's fresh - 'cause you've just caught it! But selecting fish from a market like this is actually much more of a skilled task. It's worth going to one of these courses just to find out about how to do that.
The other really good thing about some of the courses run by these guys is that you get to learn various different techniques for cutting, preparing and filleting a whole range of round fish or flatfish, some of which I'd not tried before. Plus you get to take the fish home. Yum yum!
I'll definitely be going back, maybe in the summer, but definitely not at 2 in the morning. I feel like a pig has shat in my head today!