Friday, May 25, 2012

Billingsgate & Crabs: Vanishing Act?

Looks like the Cockroach Catcher’s favourite food may be disappearing from his favourite market: Billingsgate!!!

The Telegraph:
Through spending time in the company of these engaging East End characters, the film simply but powerfully showed the sadness of the porters’ way of life disappearing. Although, as we watched Sri Lankan fish airfreighted in via Heathrow and Cornish crabs packed for export to China, it was clear that no ancient statutes could hold back the tide of change.

Billingsgate ©2010 Am Ang Zhang
Having the advantage of living near Billingsgate Fish Market in London,  the Cockroach Catcher always finds great pleasure in getting the freshest seafood and cooking it in the simplest possible way.

Last Saturday, we managed to get a dozen fresh scallops, three live crabs (brown crabs) and a two-pound Dover Sole.

At Billingsgate, one is allowed to pick one’s own scallops and crabs. The trick with scallop is you want those with tightly shut shells.  In cold weather, freshness is not a problem.

Brown crabs are one of the best value seafood in the world. The shells are hard and the flesh sweet and very firm.  Some like males (with their narrow underbelly flap) and others prefer females (with a much rounder flap). Right now the males are good, while the females are better just before Christmas.

The Dover Sole I got from my trusted fishmonger from Selsey, near where I used to live.  Dovers with their nice firm flesh are amongst the best tasting fish around - truly a winner amongst small flat fish.

All good cooks know that if you get the best ingredients, there is not much you need to do.

Scallops ©2010 Am Ang Zhang
Throughout the years, I have somehow picked up the know how of cleaning fish and shell fish and so it was not much of a problem.

Our favourite way of preparing scallops is to steam them in their open shells and serve them in their delicate natural juice.  First, you need to take out the guts and the protective lips. The lips you can fry separately with garlic and olive oil. With very fresh scallops, all the seasoning you need is a few grains of good sea salt crystal on serving. Steaming time is around two minutes and 45 seconds.

We had the scallops as starters and the Dover Sole as the main course.  As the fish was quite big, we decided not to have the crabs on the same day.   In true Teochiu style, we steamed the crabs and then left them untouched in the fridge for the next day.  Cold Teochiu crab is a delicacy from my home village.

The Dover Soles as sold in Billingsgate are already cleaned, so there is generally not much you need to do. You can try to scale it before cooking, but the scales are tiny and not easy to remove.  As the skin is not normally consumed, it can be peeled on serving.

The Chinese like their fresh fish steamed.  Steaming can be done in a fish kettle.  If you do not have one, wrap the fish in foil and put it in a pre-heated oven at 200 C for 25 minutes for a 2-pound fish. Steaming in a kettle takes about the same time.

Dover Soles can be steamed without any seasoning or with a few slivers of fresh ginger.  Some like to serve the steamed fish with a good quality soya sauce, mixed with a little bit of oil.

The following day we had the cold crabs: delightfully fresh and sweet tasting.  Any seasoning? None was required.

There was a good bit of roe.  We often make crab roe cakes by beating a couple of eggs in with the roe and pan frying the mixture with olive oil and minced fresh garlic.  If you like, you can add some cooked rice as filler.

The paired wine: Puligny Montrachet 1er Les Referts (2004).  This has a delightful apricot and almond nose, and in taste a herbal fruitiness and subtle buttery character typical of Puligny Montrachet.  A good match for the freshest seafood simply prepared.

So ended two days of delicious Billingsgate fun!


Billingsgate: The Cockroach Catcher’s Guide

Billingsgate Market 1876/Illustrated London News/Honbicot at en.wikipedia

I remember the first time I went to Billingsgate Market was when it was still in the old location (now an event venue). A couple of friends came with us. We drove and parked outside there at around five in the morning when it officially opened. In those days, individual retail customers like us were seen as a nuisance and we had to follow certain rules so as not to be in the way of the wholesale business. We were not allowed to venture beyond lines clearly marked on the floor, and we had to watch out for fast moving trolley loads of fish that were hell bent on breaking your ankles. Once you were aware of these minor rules you were treated to the delight of being in somewhere special: arguably the best fish market in the world.

In those days, even as retail individuals you had to buy like wholesale. A box of anything was literally the minimum quantity one had to buy. We could end up with 14 crabs, 5 lbs of shrimps and a whole boxful of sea bass. And oysters by the basket too!  But in those days, fish were wild and you did not have to know how to distinguish between farmed salmon and wild ones. Nowadays even sea bass can be farmed, although it is not difficult to tell the difference: the price.

In the old days, a trip to Billingsgate was always followed by a big seafood party!

Now the new market is in Canary Wharf and the easiest way to get there is by No. 277 bus. It is so popular that parking can be a major problem. There must be a realisation that retail customers are important too.  By and large the first hour of trading was done by the big boys; so the best time to be there is just after six and before six thirty, before it begins to get too crowded.

The question is often asked as to how one can tell if a fish is fresh. At Billingsgate, the fish generally are, although some are better than others. The usual rules of good sheen, firmness and bright red gills apply.  If it looks good, it is generally good.  If in doubt smell it: fresh fish is not fishy!

In a wholesale market you expect the seafood to be fresh and normally they are.  Shell fish can go off pretty quickly in warm weather, but in the winter months they are usually fine. The Cockroach Catcher applies the rule of R for most shell fish and not just oysters. (Rule of R: Avoid the months without an R)
The best fish to watch out for in the summer is the wild sea trout: one of the most delightful fish to have but it has a rather short season.

The truth is that if you are prepared to get up early, you are going to be treated to the freshest seafood you can get on this island, and at a better price than you find at local fishmongers and supermarkets.

The alternative: you can get even fresher fish by the sea in Panama.

San Carlos Panama/ ©2010 Am Ang Zhang

About Billingsgate Market

Billingsgate is the United Kingdom's largest inland fish market. An average of 25,000 tonnes of fish and fish products are sold through its merchants each year. Approximately 40% of that tonnage comprises fish imported from abroad. The annual turnover of the Market is estimated to be in the region of £200m. The Market complex covers an area of 13 acres and is entirely self-contained. The ground floor of the building comprises a large trading hall with 98 stands and 30 shops, including two cafes; a shellfish boiling room; a number of individual cold rooms; an 800 tonne freezer store (maintained at a temperature of -26°C), an ice making plant and 14 lock-up shops used by processors, catering suppliers and merchants dealing primarily in trade sundries, non-perishables, poultry and potatoes.              Visit London

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