In 2014, Billingsgate shifted more than 35,000 tonnes of fish, mostly to restaurants and other trade customers. It's also possible for the public to shop at what is one of the world's most famous markets, but do we? And why does anyone bother getting up at 4am to go shopping?
It’s a rather overwhelming and visceral experience, a first trip to Billingsgate. In its industrial, rusted Docklands location where water meets metal and expanses of sky, the market is buzzing as the rest of the city sleeps. The smell of fish is very present, unsurprisingly, and it’s wet, very wet indeed, lit by bulbs glaring stark light. The movement inside is matter of fact and urgent. Jobs need to be done, and fast. We’re nearly caught on the Achilles as pallet trolleys race by, followed by hairy men in white wellies and coats. There's a lot of shouting and shrill phone ringing, deals are being struck, and fish is slapped and slipped into boxes. Prices are scribbled onto boards, and the men stand in front of them, wrapped in many layers of fleece and beanie hats.
The market starts earlier and earlier these days as the traders compete with one another to get the catch landed and into the market. Then the people come. But who gets up at 4am to come to Billingsgate for some cod? we ask our guide: “Everybody but the English,” comes the answer, “If you look at the faces down there you will see south east Asian people, Afro-Caribbean people, they’re the ones who value fish. It’s bang up there on their menus. British people don’t value fish at all, or they’re scared of cooking it.”
It’s true, certainly, that many people don’t know what they’re looking for. They might know how to select a fresh piece of meat, not so much a fish. So what are the signs of good quality? Many people think it’s best to have a look at the gills, but many fish have gills with varying shades of red so it’s not particularly helpful. The number one indicator of a fresh fish, apparently is slime. It may seem gross, but a thick layer of goo on on your grouper (okay maybe sole), is desirable. Providing it’s clear of course. Any colouration to that slime and you might want to consider calling Ghostbusters, or at the very least throwing the fish away. Eyes too, should never be sunken.
When it comes to shellfish most people know that it’s the tap test which indicates if the creature is alive. If the shell fails to close, discard it. With scallops however, it’s a case of whether you can get them open. A live scallop will never yield. Don’t ever sniff them for freshness, however – one trader tells us of a gnarly scallop snapping shut on a lady’s nose — once they clamp, they don’t release and she lost rather a lot of skin getting it off. Shudder.
With lobsters, well, you want them live and preferably native. The latter can be distinguished from their Canadian cousins by the mottled pattern they use for camouflage and their bright, peacock blue colour.
Some make their first trip to Billingsgate in search of fish for sashimi. ‘Sashimi grade’ fish is obviously fish that is very good quality, but don’t bother looking for tuna. In Japan, sashimi grade fish would always be bluefin (85 tonnes of bluefin is shifted each year in Tokyo's most famous market, Tsukiji) but we don’t import it into the UK for sustainability reasons. In Billingsgate, you'll have to make do with the inferior yellowfin.
We come across a merchant, the only one in the market, selling live langoustines. They supply only to their own restaurant, Chamberlain's in Leadenhall Market, plus Buckingham and Kensington Palace, Westminster Abbey and five star hotels. So the general public can't buy from just anyone. It's a case of seeking out the right traders, and finding a bargain in the process.
Our guide laughs at the markups in West End restaurants, “You can buy a scallop for £1.80 here, then see it on a restaurant menu with a flash garnish for £25”. And what about that nowadays-notoriously expensive creature, the monkfish? Apparently, it was originally sold as part of a scam. It was a by-catch that no one wanted, so one enterprising skipper started calling it ‘scampri’, which most people thought meant scampi. He made hundreds of thousands of pounds selling it as the latter until someone complained and he got busted. By then he didn’t care, he’d made his fortune and simply paid his fine. Monkfish is now £12.50 a kilo in the market, probably £30 a kilo in the supermarket, which seems expensive, but our guide points out that weight for weight for monkfish is about £4 a kilo cheaper than Pringles. Are we ever likely to buy a kilo of Pringles? It's a fun fact nonetheless.
By 5.30 the market is finished, the floors washed, the pallets stowed, before the average Londoner has opened an eye. Fish are whizzing around in the back of vans on their way to restaurants, hotels and chippies. It's a shame that access to fresh fish is so tricky for Londoners. Many can't get to a fishmonger before it closes, and supermarket selections can be dire. Are we willing to get up at 4am to buy it though? Maybe just the once.
See Billingsgate's website for details of tours and classes.