Friday, April 2, 2010

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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