It was 2.10am when I saw Liam’s car head lights illuminate my road as he drove towards me. We were meeting at my place before heading up in convoy with Alistair and Arc to go and have a nose around Billingsgate fish market.
Nowadays, it has become rare that we would go to Billingsgate to buy our fish. As our supply network has grown, more often than not we only buy one or two products from an individual supplier as close to the source as possible. For example, potted shrimps from Southport shrimps, smoked eel from the Dutch Eel Company and halibut from the halibut farm in Gigha…..you get the picture. We have taken on a few new people and were looking for a bit of a ‘school trip’, we decided that a few of us would make the Billingsgate trip and conclude the learning experience with bacon sandwiches at dawn.
Liam and I underestimated how long it would take to get there and were playing catch up to Alistair’s party. We arrived at 3.30am and found Alistair, who had already brought about 90kg of fish. He seemed somewhat perturbed by the passing comment of a fish merchant, ‘you should have got here earlier and you ‘woulda’ had that’.
The market was smaller than I had imagined. But, what it lacked in size, it overcompensated in variation and energy. Each trader had carved out their respective section and maximised their displays and offerings. Most exciting to me were the exotic stands, full of fish I had yet to learn the names of. 10 species of grouper, 4 types of fish they called snapper yet lacked common appearance, Bombay duck; a fish that naturally smells horrific and is named after the Bombay mail train.
Alistair hadn’t been to the market in a number of years and was enjoying a good catch up with traders who the company had been buying fish from for over a decade. These catch ups usually concluded in a few extra boxes of fish being ferried out to the vehicles by an army of whizzing pallet pump truck controllers weaving around the market with a seasoned skill.
At around 4.30am the market’s visiting population had moved from professionals buying fish for businesses, to groups of Asian tourists and enthusiastic home cooks. Up until our visit, I hadn’t considered an early morning inner-city fish market to be a tourist attraction. I now see the appeal; it’s loud, full of strange sights and ultimately a unique experience.
Once our vehicles were just about full, we set off around the market buying a few bits and bobs for ourselves. We were led by Alistair who was recommending good buys and where we would be wise to steer clear. We brought Tesco bags full of king prawns, sacks of amandes de mer and some nice whole sea bass.
Billingsgate is an experience! I would recommend it to anyone who has an interest in seafood or food in general. Each fish, clam and crab has a story behind how it found its way to the market. If you’ve got the time and the desire, you can find out a lot about how seafood from around the world finds its way onto plates by taking a trip down the fish market.