12 Mar 2008

Gone fishing....

I love markets – particularly food markets, although I do love to rummage through a good flea market when the opportunity arises. There is something unique about the energy and atmosphere generated by a collection of people selling their wares that makes the whole experience more colourful and fun. Maybe I am just an old romantic with images of quaint French men selling “fromage” on the streets of Paris… Personally though, the lure of interaction with people whose knowledge and experience can turn for example a randomly purchased pork knuckle, into one of the best meals I have had, is just simply irresistible.

Since writing my article for Time Out London on local fish I have come to understand the raft of value for money suppers that can be made from local, seasonal fish. Standing on pelagic trawler (fishing boat to you and me) in the choppy Thames Estuary I very quickly understood how little I knew about the subject, so I booked myself onto a course at Billingsgate Fish Market.

On this occasion I wasn’t there to learn how to prepare and cook the fish, although they do have a wonderful collection of fish cookery courses based at the market that I will be following up on - I was there to satisfy my love of markets with a tour.

Billingsgate is the largest inland fish market in the country and caters to both the general public and restaurant trade – so you too can grab yourself some amazingly priced fish, although with the market only open from 5-8am, you have to be early to get the good stuff. Housed in a purpose built building since the 1980’s, the fish market sits in the shadows of Canary Wharf on the waters of the dock, a no less grand, but definitely more modern location than its previous setting near London Bridge since 1850.

The tour began rather early at 6.15am, when the market was already in full swing, and our intimate group of five were shown round by Barry from the Worshipful Company of Fishmongers. As I remember, he was responsible for quality at the market, so certainly knew a bad fish when he saw one.

First off we were shown the crucial points to look for when buying fresh fish. Barry pulled a huge farmed salmon onto the table to demonstrate the qualities we should be looking for using a nose to tail approach. Some great tips that I picked up were:

  • Eyes should be bright and clear, like glass – not cloudy
  • Look into the gills to check their colour. They should be bright red in most fish.
  • Look inside the belly if it has been gutted and make sure it is cleaned out
  • Fish are naturally slimy – not wet. Fish have a natural slime over their whole body that protects them from parasites and also makes them impossible to pick up.

In pelagic species (fish that swim near the surface of the sea – I just learnt that!) this will be thin slime. For fish that live nearer the seabed such as Dover sole as in the picture above, it will be like snot. Honest! Imagine Slimmer from the Ghostbusters films – just like that! Slime is a good thing though as this is a naturally occurring layer over the fish which prevents the caught fish’s flesh from deteriorating….so look for slimy fish!

(Apparently the supermarkets and some fishmongers wash off the slime since customers don’t like it, so that’s why they have to spray them with water to keep them looking fresh).

The group was then guided round some of the stalls where Roy talked through a raft of fish species such as Hake, Dover and lemon sole, halibut, brill, tuna, cod, pollack, sea bass, mackrel, sprats and herrings. We were bombarded with information about the species, their quality (pointing out ones that were past their best – providing great examples of what not to buy!), cooking tips and how they were caught.

In addition to this, we covered shellfish, looking at the various prawns for sale, learning the difference between native and Canadian lobsters, rope grown and wild mussels, and about hand dived, dredged, soaked and dry scallops. (There is not enough space here to mention everything I learnt, but scallops was the particularly interesting subject. Short story – don’t buy “soaked” supermarket scallops!)

After shellfish we moved onto smoked fish, where we enjoyed a sneaky taste of kiln smoked salmon whilst being talked through hot and cold smoking processes used for the sprats, kippers and haddock on view.


Then last, but by no means least we came to this huge chest of metal drawers…..

any ideas what's inside...

...Live eels!

So, with numb feet and a memory full of fish, we headed back for a cup of coffee to thaw out. Dashing off after big thanks for Barry, I dived into the car and headed off to work high on all the knowledge I had acquired in just 2 hours and so early in the morning! Amazing!

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