Monday, July 30, 2012
I don’t like waking up early. In fact, I have a pretty set routine of waking up at 8am every day of the week. But every once in awhile I find something that makes it worth my while to break the cycle. One such thing is a good market. A fish market. Specifically, London’s Billingsgate Fish Market.
Billingsgate has been around in some form or another for over a thousand years. In the 16th century, it eschewed other forms of commerce to focus solely on seafood, and to this day it remains the city’s most famous fish market. Originally located in central London, it moved out east 30 years ago.
It is now strangely situated at the base of gleaming skyscrapers in Canary Wharf, London’s famous financial district. A squat yellow building, it looks out of place at first glance. But inside there is as much trading going on as there is in any of the neighboring towers, and the trading is of a much more interesting–if far more pungent–variety.
The other week I was invited to tour Billingsgate Fish Market at the eye-wateringly early hour of 5am. My group arrived, donned our white coats with their delightfully British “Worshipful Company of Fish Mongers” logos, and headed out to see the market with our guide, Christopher Leftwich.
Christopher was the Chief Inspector of the Fishmongers’ Company, and was responsible for ensuring that Billingsgate maintained a high quality of fish and seafood. During his long tenure he had done everything from wrestle with live eels to escort Prince William around the floor.
The morning we were there, he took us up and down the aisles of the market, pointing out tanks full of lobsters, crates filled with scallop shells, and cartons brimming with razor clams. In between were staples like cod, which is the market’s top seller due to the UK’s insatiable appetite for fish and chips, and exotic fish like stingrays.
While we walked, Christopher told us how the market sells 25,000 tons of seafood every year from over 100 countries around the world. Beyond the market, Billingsgate also runs a seafood school that offers everything from knife skills classes to cooking lessons, with proceeds going to charity.
By act of parliament, the market is open to any member of the public. Billingsgate opens daily from 4am to 8am, with commercial trading generally taking place during the first two hours and retail operations the second two. There is a fresh fish section and a frozen fish section, the latter being particularly popular with expats seeking exotic fish shipped in from their home countries.
After touring the market and being wowed by the variety of fish on offer, we hopped into a car and drove the short distance to one of the most famous pubs in Canary Wharf, The Gun. There we enjoyed some hot drinks before going outside for a fish masterclass.
The chef, James, taught us how to cook bream, gurnard, plaice, salmon, and scallops. Starting with whole fish, he showed us how to clip the fins, remove the scales, gut them, cut them, prep them, and cook them. He made it look so easy I was almost convinced I could do it at home.
But as usual, I preferred to leave the hard work to a real chef. Luckily, I was able to sample the end result of each fish, which in every case was as good as it looked.
After the cooking class, we enjoyed a breakfast of smoked salmon and scrambled eggs before heading back to central London to start our days.
It was hard to believe we had accomplished so much before most people were even awake. The Billingsgate Fish Market tour and cooking class at The Gun were definitely worth the early wake-up call, and I would happily set my alarm for 4:15am again for a morning so full of fish and fun.