It’s 5.40am on a Saturday morning and I’m boarding the Surbiton train into London, bleary eyed, but full of anticipation. I’m off to Billingsgate to catch some fishy bargains!
My matching bleary-eyed friend, Sue joins me at Canary Wharf underground station and we head over to the market.
It was not until the 16th Century that Billingsgate became synonymous with fish – since 1327 its bustling market had traded in corn, coal, iron, wine, salt, pottery as well as seafood.
The original market traded in Lower Thames Street for 900 years in various constructions before moving to east London in 1982. It now resides in a purpose built Docklands hanger. Those who enjoy brutalist architecture, might approve and, to be fair, it is an ugly yet practical building surrounded by heaps of car parking space for the throngs of customers. Today it is the UK’s largest inland fish market with around 25,000 tonnes of seafood products sold there ever year.
When we arrive we fell like latecomers. The fish market has been in full swing since 4am! Their restaurant clientele and catering suppliers have long since made their purchases and now at 7am, the public has descended to stock up for their weekend meals and dinner parties.
As we enter the market we both notice the smell – not of fish exactly, but a more pleasant smell of the sea. Both being raised in the seaside town of Morecambe, we started to reminisce. The fishmongers in their white overalls and white brimmed hats reminded us of the ‘Seafood Man’ who used to visit the pubs of Morecambe on a weekend. Carrying his large wicker basket, he would sell cardboard tubs of lightly pickled cockles and prawns – a traditional long since gone – no doubt due to health and safety reasons!
With around 100 stalls, the atmosphere on Billingsgate market floor is buzzing. Here third and fourth generation fishmongers peddle their wares. Lots of the fish are so fresh; they’re not yet in rigor mortis. Many species look foreign, and indeed they were – flown in from Asia there’s everything from Tilipia to Parrot fish.
The movement is matter of fact and urgent and we’re nearly caught on the Achilles as pallet trolleys race by, followed by hairy men in white wellies and coats. The floor is wet and slippery so it’s not a place to be wearing heels!
The market closes around 8.30am and doesn’t again until the following Tuesday, so shopping around 7am is the perfect time if you’re after a few fishy deals! An extra couple of scallops in the shell here, another half kilo of prawns there and we have ourselves an impressive catch for dinner with plenty left over to freeze!
By now we’re floundering (sorry) so it’s off to the Seafood Training School upstairs for sustenance and a crash course in filleting.