Billingsgate Fish Market

It’s a bourgeois tragedy. The meat’s bought (GG Sparkes) the cheese and veg is safely gathered in (Cheeseboard and Creaky Shed) vast vats worth of wine, port and sherry arrived(Theatre of Wine – delivery’s free) but – zut alors! The Fishmonger’s closed for the week! What’s a phantom to do? Only one thing to do – brave the Blackwall Tunnel and the hour-that-dare-not speak its name, and Go Wholesale…

I utterly hate getting up when there’s a five in the hour. It makes me literally ill – some kind of weird pressure thing at that time of the day seems to contract my chest and make me really rather queasy. I will do anything to avoid it – including getting up when there’s a four in the hour. Billingsgate opens at five on a weekday (no Mondays, remember, and only shellfish on a Sunday)and because we knew nothing about how the place works we decided to turn up as soon after then as possible.

As it happens, it seems that the real rush happens about an hour later – and who can blame a bleary fishmonger for wanting to get an extra hour in bed? These guys do it every day, including winter – yeuch – and I confess I have a new-found respect for Julian at The Fishmonger Ltd for doing it. The only thing that would make me go at 5.30am again is the Blackwall Tunnel – really quite fluid at 5.15 – and going back south at six, but with a good queue building already on the other side going north. And from a buying point of view 5.30 seems a good time to arrive too. The car park is busy but not overflowing; the fishmongers doing a fair trade but still able to talk.

I confess that being quite a shy and retiring kinda phantom I was a little nervous of a wholesale market. I was concerned that I would stick out like the proverbial sore thumb as the tourist among all the Gordon Ramsays, Marco-Pierre Whites and, er, Julians. I had this image that the traders might be quite hostile to someone who didn’t want to buy a hundredweight of Dover Sole or a whole barrel full of eels. I had also assumed that there would be no prices anywhere and a sort of Turkish bazaar-style haggling system would be the norm. I had, of course, forgotten one thing. This is Britain.

Billingsgate is one of those things everyone should do at least once in their lives, even if only so that they know what they’re buying at The Fishmonger, and what goes on to get the goods to the shop. Wandering around the place is an education in itself, though not, I understand, as atmospheric as the old Billingsgate in the City, whose cellars, I have heard rumoured, took several years to thaw out when it was redeveloped by greedy people in the 80s. Their loss is our gain, I say. The market’s new location makes it about 12 minutes by car. You could go by DLR to Canary Wharf (about ten minutes walk from the market,) but you might not be popular with other passengers on the way home.

The main market is, of course, covered, and a lot quieter than I had expected. As you know by now, I live in some kind of hazy 1960s time warp in my head and although there is friendly Alfred Doolittle costermonger-type banter going on (yeah, yeah, I know he was fruit & veg,) it’s not the racket I had imagined – and not a single geezer with one of them silly ‘ats on at all. Nobody seemed to be in the slightest bit interested in the tourists – ie. us – they were too busy going about their business, and we happily wandered up and down the aisles marvelling at the sheer variety of sea life we’d never heard of. I mean – what the hell do you do with a Ribbon Fish?

The whoppers are sold individually. We bought the biggest salmon we could fit in the fish kettle for a tenner – the truly mooosive ones were about twenty quid. While we were about it we bought a huge side of smoked salmon, also for ten pounds.

Of course where retail fishmongers really come into their own is with the giant fish – the halibuts, for example – you really do need to buy the whole damn thing when one slice from the local fish shop would feed a family of four for a month. All the individual can do is wonder at these majestic creatures laid out on slabs of ice.

Most of the smaller fish you need to buy by the boxful so its well worth going with friends and divvying up the spoils or making sure you have a LOT of room in the freezer. We bought a box of beautifully-filleted rainbow trout for fourteen pounds – there were thirteen in there, which makes them just over a pound each (unprepared trout was much cheaper.) As a final treat, we bought a kilo of gigantic king scallops also for fourteen pounds(with free plastic box, whoopee.)

We were treated with courtesy and smiled at by people who, at that hour of the morning could be forgiven for being very crabby indeed. There are two greasy-spoon type cafes in the place, but we didn’t stop to test them (they looked fantastic)as we had one eye on the tunnel.

Back home we divided the scallops into sensible amounts in separate bags, and clingfilmed individual trout fillets we weren’t going to use. Our freezer is now full to bursting – and anyone coming to dinner chez Phantom can expect scallops, salmon and trout for the foreseeable future.

It’s still only 7.43am. I can’t believe I’m up. I’d forgotten how good coffee is this time of day.

Seriously folks. Try this once. Take the pain, get up at 5.00am. Wander around, experience a little bit of London’s heritage, buy some fish (oh – handy tip – take plenty of bin bags to put your loot in – some supply bags, others don’t, you don’t want it dripping everywhere) – and then grovel before Julian’s feet, knowing he goes through this rigmarole every day.

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