I thought it was a great opportunity to have a nosey around what I imagined to be quite an intimidating market, and also have a free breakfast, so I immediately accepted. I had not, unfortunately, considered that I would need to wake up before 5am to get to Canary Wharf by 6.45am for the tour. With my evil Mexican jetlag still lingering, I wasn’t half as impressed as when I saw the original invitation.
However, I am really pleased that I did make the effort to go on the market tour. Chris Leftwich was my guide – he’s the Chief Inspector of the Fishmonger’s Company, and he’s responsible for quality control at the fishmarket. As he showed us around the market he explained about the different types of fish which are available from the market, and how the market has changed over the years.
As Londoners have become more diverse, so has the fish for sale in the market, and lots of fish which is not native to our own shores is imported from around the world. It seems that as long as a fish is not endangered (the Marine Stewardship Council rules for sustainable fishing are extremely strict, and Chris explained that you won’t find any endangered fish for sale at Billingsgate), you’ll probably find it in Billingsgate.
As well as the choice of fish available at the market, I was also really surprised by the prices at Billingsgate – you’ll easily spend half what you would at the supermarket. Huge bags of raw, peeled tiger prawns were for sale for a fiver!
The only possible issue is that the fish isn’t processed at Billingsgate, so you buy what you see: no filleting, scaling, slicing or preparing of the fish is done at the market proper, and if you see a price for a box of fish, you have to buy that whole box of fish. So you do really have to know what you want, or be prepared to buy in bulk. However, for whole fish, scallops, lobster and shellfish, you’d no doubt find some amazing bargains.
I also expected the market to be intimidating – in fact, until Chris told me, I didn’t realise that the market was actually open to the public – but I was pleasantly surprised by how friendly everyone was. I did see Roger, the “Bastard of Billingsgate”, over in one corner and steered clear of him, but everyone else was lovely.
After the tour, Chris took us back upstairs to the cookery school, which I also did not realise existed at Billingsgate. The school is actually a charitable trust, which was set up to promote awareness of fish to young people and also educate those within the industry. Run by CJ Jackson, the school offers a variety of courses for food lovers, including the festive breakfast to which I was invited.
We were greeted with a glass of champagne and some gorgeous little smoked salmon canapes, while CJ explained how to make a festive salmon dish for Christmas. We then moved into the dining room where we were served our choice of fishy breakfast. I chose smoked haddock benedict royale (I can never resist a soft poached egg) but there was also salmon kedgeree, smoked salmon and scrambled eggs, and kippers.
The breakfast was delicious, and it was great to meet other foodies who had been invited along for the day, as well as some of the people who work at Billingsgate (I sincerely hope the story told by Barry about the huge oyster, swallowed whole, which decided to make its way back out of someone’s stomach, was a tall tale!).
I’ll definitely go back to Billingsgate to buy some fish, and I’d love to also attend one of their cookery school classes. You can find out more about what’s available on the seafood school’s website. And two top tips for if you do decide to venture to Billingsgate:
- Get there before 7am as everywhere will be closing up by 7.30am.
- Pop into the cafe on the ground floor for a bacon and scallop sandwich – apparently they are legendary!
Have you ever been to the market? If so, what did you think, and did you meet the Bastard of Billingsgate?