The Man Who Knows Everything About Fish

By Londonist Last edited 32 months ago
The Man Who Knows Everything About Fish

A mere line's cast from Canary Wharf, one of the last vestiges of the City of London commerce scene remains alive and flapping, in the form of Billingsgate Market.

Centrepiece of the capital's fish trade, Billingsgate carries out its business five days a week, as it has done since the late 1600s when an act of Parliament deemed it "a free and open market for all sorts of fish".

Presiding over the quality and saleability of its produce therein, since those times, has fallen to the inspectors or 'Fishmeters' of the Worshipful Company of Fishmongers.

In more recent times, and since the market premises moved to its current location adjacent to the North Dock in 1982, the inspectorate of the Fishmongers Company have maintained a daily presence at the market.

The current cohort has been led for the last 30 years by Chris Leftwich, their inimitable chief inspector.

But this month will see Chris hang up his market coat and close the inspectorate door behind him for the last time.

As we stroll amidst resplendent boxes of gleaming Scottish whitefish and baskets and nets of prime and still-moving south coast shellfish, we sense that Chris and his long-acquired pescatorial knowledge, are going to be sorely missed.

But how does a person get into the fish game in the first instance?

"Basically I'd flunked my exams and didn’t get the required grades" Chris grins, explaining his failed attempt to learn Computer Science at Imperial College during the 1970s.

A brief flirtation with accountancy was followed up with the offer of a job as an environmental health officers at Tower Hamlets.

"I basically loved the variety of work and the contact with people," says Chris.

Four years of study at Tottenham Tech followed. Placements and practicals at various slaughterhouses and working visits to the Old Billingsgate soon instilled a passion for food quality.

Passing his environmental health officer exams Chris qualified aged 22, joining the Tower Hamlets team on the princely salary of £5k a year.

That made Chris one of the highest paid inspectors for his age.

He earns a bit more now, and you can see why.

Stopping at one beautifully ordered array, Chris points out nonchalantly that the squid, lying white and tubular in front of us, probably has only a few hours shelf-life left, before becoming unfit for sale and potential condemnation. The merest change in tint on the outer membrane, explains Chris, betrays its apparently pristine condition.

At another stall further on, we remark on the incredibly dark dorsal colouring of a batch of fine plaice. Chris points out that these fish hail from Icelandic waters, where the colder seas and a different seabed, compared to that of our home-fished grounds, produce an entirely different coloured specimen.

Chris is at home here, but how did he come to be at Billingsgate at all?

He explains how after a few years doing environmental health he decided to move into the food department and specialise in its quality and hygiene. It was in this department that he got to know the fish inspectors, as Billingsgate market had by then moved to Canary Wharf.

Chris was approached by Gerry Watkin, the ebullient and larger than life Billingsgate chief inspector, who was nearing retirement.

"I got on very well with Gerry" muses Chris, "He could be a difficult bugger, but we hit it off immediately and he taught me a lot and after a nine month handover period, I was ready to take the baton from him."

During that period it necessitated getting to know the traders, porters and their foibles and routines that so identify Billingsgate, while at the same time checking and scrutinising fish and shellfish (often by the lorry load) to ensure compliance for sale.

"In those days," Chris reminisces, "95% of the fish entering the market were from our home ports with the only real imports being cold water prawns and a bit of red snapper".

Over a third of Billingsgate's produce is now imported.

One of Chris's first tasks was to sort out a major problem with cockles coming into the market which were causing masses of food poisoning. He describes how collaboration with medical science proved crucial to the task:

"The Company had a close relationship with the consultant microbiologist at Guy's Hospital and between us we used to test the bivalve shellfish coming into the market for E Coli to ensure that they were safe for consumption."

This pioneering work, especially when coupled with the considerable flow of imported and exotic species into Billingsgate, (as restaurants and tastes becoming more aligned with a progressively cosmopolitan society), became ever more important.

Chris was also asked to help set up quality control systems in all countries engaged in exporting wild and farmed seafood to the UK market. His work took him to Tanzania, Kenya, Oman, Thailand, Sri Lanka and Saudi Arabia.

This level of expertise and far reaching understanding has garnered him both global respect and renown, qualities that have secured his esteem back home in the corridors of Fishmongers’ Hall.

But Chris's ultimate pride and satisfaction lie back in Docklands and upstairs at the market, where his vision for a training school for fishmongers evolved into the Billingsgate Seafood School.

It operates here today, providing training and support for not just fishmongers, but chefs, local authorities and caterers and fosters a keen educational bias, providing schoolchildren and teachers alike with the necessary knowledge and skills to purchase, prepare, cook and consume seafood.

That, above anything else, is Chris's legacy.

By now we're studying lemon soles, which lie both stiff and slippery, rigor mortis still apparent, indicating that they still swam, literally hours ago.

Chris picks one out and gestures to smell the freshness. We remark on the sweet, ozonic, scent and the fact that like much of the market, fish is not the overriding aroma.

It's amazing just how much there is to learn about fish.

And just how much Chris Leftwich has taught London about it.

By Mike Warner

Last Updated 25 February 2016

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