Five o’clock in the morning isn’t a time I ever want to see, unless it’s a prerequisite to a transatlantic flight and two weeks somewhere sunny. (And even then, I need a good deal of airport vodka to make it through in a half-decent mood.) Five o’clock belongs to monks, milkmen and the mob; farmers and fishmongers; bin men, bobbies and builders. (And students, of course, but they’re only still up because they haven’t gone to bed yet, so don’t count.) In short, 5am is not really my scene.
Nevertheless, there I was at the legendary Billingsgate Fish Market a few Saturdays ago – cold, sleepy and generally just a bit pissed off – at the behest of chef and fellow blogger Rosie, with whom I’d blithely signed up for an early morning seafood masterclass a few weeks previously. Our objective was to create the perfect fish dish to complement a selection of Muscadet wines, which are light, dry and famously fabulous with seafood.
We were met at the market by roaming grape devotee and social butterfly, Douglas Blyde, who in defiance of any kind of practicality was dressed in a three-piece suit, cravat and pocket square. We had convened at Piggy’s Cafe, a crowded caff that offered welcome sanctuary from the otherwise inescapable odour of fresh fish. Piggy’s’ big draw was its famous bacon and scallop butty, probably the city’s most bargainous seafood dish at £3.25 a go. The two are, of course, established platefellows, but the combination of fatty, greasy spoon-style back bacon and huge, luxuriously succulent scallops was bizarre. (And, once I’d trimmed off the bacon fat, delicious.)
Once we’d properly woken up it was time to explore the market and select our ingredients. We were looking specifically for sea bass, oysters and scallop shells, though it required a great deal of pleading and flirting to persuade the market sellers to sell their wares in such small quantity. One grown man in our group, somewhat disadvantaged by his lack of feminine charm (and tits), only managed to wrangle his ingredients by tearily telling a seller he had a school project to complete, and only a single squid would do.
What struck me as we toured the stalls was how cheap everything was: six enormous Dorset oysters set us back £4.50, and we saw whole salmon – large enough for the piscine equivalent of a hog roast – going for £30. If you’re a fan of fish – and can stomach the early wake-up call – a trip to Billingsgate is one for the bucket list. Indeed, nearly a quarter of customers are now early bird members of the general public, out to get their fill of ocean’s bounty before the market closes at 9:30am.
One word of warning: wear sensible shoes. As we headed out of the chill to Billingsgate Seafood School, where we would clean and gut our purchases, we heard a shriek and a crash. The floors of the market are very wet and one poor girl had slipped over, hitting the ground like a sack of shit before scrambling up, wild-eyed with embarrassment and dripping with fish juice, and sprinting away before we could help her.
We headed in to the classroom, the screams of Fish Juice Girl still ringing in our ears. The walls were encrusted with taxidermied crustaceans and fish, including a deep sea anglerfish. I was pleased to see it; anglerfish are best known for their dangling ‘light-bulbs’, which attract prey, and elasticated stomachs that allow them to swallow creatures up to twice their body size. (A useful skill, I think you’ll agree. They are my spirit animals.)
CJ, CEO of the Seafood School and our mentor for the morning, gave us the obligatory safety chat about washing our hands and not stabbing each other with oyster shuckers for jokes, etc. and led us to a space I’ll call the gutting room. It was kitted out with big trough sinks and those stretchy shower heads designed to sluice down stainless steel surfaces. Decked out in our flimsy blue plastic aprons, we looked like a band of extras in a low-budget torture movie.
Rosie, the chef, was entirely unfazed, slitting our bass open and pulling out fistfuls of guts with the same gusto as a small child with a bag of Maynard’s Wine Gums. Meanwhile, I – sous chef/fish bitch – halfheartedly evicted the scallops from their shells with a small, evil little blade, binning the small black stomach sacs and tossing the meat over to another team, as we only needed the shells. Considering what a
raging pussy delicate flower I am, I was doing okay until CJ dropped the bombshell that the slimy frill around the edge of the scallop was, effectively, its face. THE SCALLOPS HAVE EYES; fifteen of them, in fact, and they were watching me carve out its squishy flesh from its lifelong home.
The Little Mermaid never prepared me for this shit.
Once Rosie had finished fisting our sea bass and I’d spent 35 fruitless minutes trying to hack open the monster oysters we’d picked up (with a heavy heart, a hasten to add; I felt like the Walrus from The Walrus and The Carpenter), we packed into taxis and headed west to the Central Street Cookery School, where our fish would make their final transformation into prize-winning* delights.
*Alas, not actually prize-winning at all, in the end. But still quite good.
What happened next I can take absolutely no credit for: Rosie had thought out the dish already and was whizzing through it at record speed. I contributed by chopping some herbs and drinking a LOT of Muscadet, which by now was in free-flow. Regardless, I was still proud to present our final dish, sea bass ceviche and deep-fried tempura oysters, to judges Douglas and Jon Massey of The Wharf newspaper.
By this point we were all feeling the effects of the early start (sort of like jet lag, but from a fish market. Fish lag. Flag. I was flagging, hahaha. SHUT UP BRAIN.) Fortunately the final push involved only a few more (!) glasses of wine, which we sampled alongside everyone else’s dishes. The stuff is, on the whole, very affordable, including one surprisingly drinkable bottle from Aldi (IKR?!), which I’d wholeheartedly recommend for everyday fish suppers. It’s very fresh, with a hint of citrus and almost mineral mouthfeel, typical of Muscadet, and mighty good value at just £5.99 a bottle. (Its proper name is Aldi’s Exquisite Collection Muscadet, give it a whirl.)
We tried a few others, including an oaky number with butterscotch notes (Laithwaites’ Les Dix du Pallet, £14.99), but my favourite was actually the second cheapest: the dangerously drinkable Fief Guerin Muscadet Cotes De Grandlieu, available from Waitrose and Ocado for £7.99. Buy yourself a fishy and get a little squiffy on that one, I reckon.
By 2pm I was a) knackered and b) really quite drunk, but it had been a most productive and educational day. I’d learned a lot:
- Billingsgate Market is really good for cheap fish (but not if you’re squeamish).
- I am much better at eating food than I am at cooking it.
- Disney films are not factually accurate.
- Muscadet is really bloody good with seafood, especially that Waitrose one.
- Scallops are alive and they are watching you.
Author: Emily Gibson
Emily is an urban adventurer, blogger and
glutton foodie on an epic quest to uncover the best things to eat, drink and do in London. She lives in Islington and loves ceviche, cycling and magic shows. Lifelong nemeses include beetroot, beards and wine served in tumblers.