Billingsgate is no place for the faint hearted and the first time I visited this historic fish market in London’s East End, I remember feeling distinctly bamboozled by the place. I had just attended an intensive and mildly alcoholic two day course at a well-known cookery school in Padstein, Cornwall and felt ready to become immersed in a whole new world of gutting, scaling and full on fish filleting frippery. Yet when I arrived in Docklands early that day, under the cover of darkness, I don’t think I was quite ready for blazing cacophony of light and noise that ensued from inside the building.
To be honest that first visit remains a bit of a blur. I didn’t really know what I wanted, I didn’t really know the names or types of fish on display and rather than capitulate that my knowledge wasn’t really up to scratch, I spent a lot my time walking around looking mean and moody, prodding various fish. Like most men would do in my position.
After a long period of mooching and being bumped out of the way for the umpteenth time by grumbling porters, I sort of went in for a smash and grab exchange, wildly pointing at what I hoped was brill. Because that’s what I had cooked previously on the course. It wasn’t brill, it was turbot but the chirpy market trader winked and said it was an easy mistake to make. I winked back, handed over a wedge of cash and ran for my life back to the car with a black bin bag hoisted over my shoulder.
That was eight years ago now and to my shame I haven’t returned since, choosing the cosy enclave of my local fishmongers or supermarkets instead to buy fish. Then after a conversation on the school playground, I was offered the chance of a personalised tour by a parent who lived and breathed Billingsgate, having worked there for over 20 odd years. So I jumped at the chance.
Returning and parking amongst the hundreds of white transit vans felt familiar, as well as marching across the concrete towards this glowing epicentre of aquatic commerce. Then as we walked inside, it all came flooding back. Markets, as I am sure you aware, are normally busy places but the energy that pulses out of Billingsgate is especially overwhelming; buzzing as people teem in and out and everywhere. Amidst a constant barrage of shouting and hustling, stall owners made up from long established family businesses and relatively new players, set out their wares as customers jostle for space. Polystyrene boxes stack up all around, spilling ice; some peeping with fins and lifeless eyes, some with layers of glistening fillets. Crabs skitter around in boxes in one corner of the market, alongside lobsters which are more docile with claws strapped by rubber bands. Native breeds get handled and scrutinised with eyebrows and hand gestures. Strange exotic species stare out at you next to tubs of salmon heads. Shellfish, smoked fish and salt fish are all on display as are huge hulks of whole halibut that make you blink and gulp. A feast for the senses in other words.
Wandering around certainly felt different this time around. Having accumulated a bit more understanding of fish over the years, the confidence to converse openly with the traders was definitely there. In fact, I had quite a chat with one seasoned veteran about the complexities of the cod market. Although at one point, my guide did have to whisper in my ear that the fish I was juggling cockily was a megrim and not a lemon sole. “A meg-what?” I replied, nearly dropping it on the floor. Luckily, I didn’t have to resort to such shouting or profanity when making my main purchase that morning. It was probably due to the company I was in but I was ushered around the back and shown some boxes reserved for special customers. Round, flat yet with good confirmation i.e. nice and thick, this dark speckled beauty certainly looked good and the price was very fair indeed.
The fish? Why, it had to be a turbot of course.
Rather than filleting or carving up a fish as lovely as turbot, by roasting it whole you achieve a dish that is not only easy and practical to cook but one that is also pretty damn theatrical. Served up and shared at the table with buttered potatoes and green vegetables, this simple recipe would do for a fancy dinner party or a healthy take on a Sunday afternoon. Remember to spoon the remaining juices over some leftover potatoes though, all mashed up with a fork. If there is any left that is.