SL used to organize mass sushi and sashimi dinners in the house, which always involved little pack outings to Billingsgate Fish Market to pick up the necessary supplies. Because the main sales hours start at 4 am and most of the good stuff is gone by 7.30 am, we'd wake up early enough to catch the first DLR down at 5.32 am. Selecting the seafood was never my purview (I was more a part of the entourage than anything), so I'd just look around blearily and yawn until all the fish and scallops had been picked up and we stopped for breakfast at the nearby MacDonald's (Hash Browns!) or the small greasy spoon café (Scallop and Bacon Butties!) in the corner of the market itself.
I didn't realize the Billingsgate Seafood Training School existed until I was searching for short courses in London and it came up as one of the more interesting places to pick up a new skill. The market had always existed as just a market in my mind, and I wasn't fully functional enough in the early mornings to notice the set of doors just off the main sales floor entrance that led to the teaching rooms on the next floor. The Training School plays a complementary role to that of the market, teaching people more about fish, as well as ways to prepare them in simple, delicious and healthy dishes. They're also a registered charity, providing courses for young local students. With most of their individual courses priced a little out of my range though, it wasn't till I received a Time Out London mailer offering 33% off the price of their One Pot Suppers course that I finally signed up.
Getting to Billingsgate via DLR isn't difficult, but under drizzly and blustery conditions, the ten minute walk can be a pain. You can't properly admire Pierre Vivant's Traffic Light Tree on the roundabout just outside the market gates for one. The old Billingsgate Market used to be located near the London Bridge area until the early 1980s, and there may have been a point (Or two, or ten) while hunkering down in the frigid cold where I wished the market had a more central location, or at the very least, more accessible entrances from Poplar Station. Finally getting into the warm and dry training kitchen felt like a massive accomplishment.
The Billingsgate Market has been in operation in one iteration or another for over 800 years. While at its previous location on the bank of the Thames, the river was still the main mode of transport, and over 400 tons of fish (Mainly cod and haddock) were sold daily at what was the biggest fish market in the world in the 19th century. Today, while it's still the biggest seafood market in the UK, only 250 tons of seafood is sold on a weekly basis, and most of the produce is delivered by truck since the market is now considerably inland. The market has had to diversify on a massive scale, and now sells over 200 species of fish and other seafood.
The One Pot Suppers programme is a very informative crash course on how to pick, prepare and cook a variety of seafood using basic kitchen implements. The fresh ingredients get thrown into shared pots to make a hearty soup that is enjoyed at the end of the evening. All the participants had to call in advance to reconfirm the booking so they knew how much seafood to set aside for everyone, since it's a hands-on class and everyone needed a whole fish each to wrangle with. The ingredients vary from class to class depending on what's seasonal, so what we worked with was the catch of the day (Grey Mullet, also known as Flathead Mullet), Prawns, Mussels, and Squid.
We first learned how to pick good, fresh fish. This involved an extensive sniff test, wherein we found that fresh grey mullet smells very similar to mushrooms and more importantly, not fishy at all. Most fresh fish should have a sweet or nutty odour, nothing unpleasant. Since the fish had been out of the water for less than 48 hours, it was also still in a state of rigor mortis. You can see in the picture above that it's stiff as a board rather than flopped on the table. Unless it's hake, which apparently doesn't go into rigor mortis, floppy fish are a no-go. The eyes were also still firm and clear, not a hint of dehydration and cloudiness in sight.
The gill check also showed a good level of freshness since they were a bloody rose colour instead of brown or green. Next up, we got rid of the spiny fins, which is always good practice, especially if they happen to be somewhat poisonous, and it was my biggest hurdle of the evening. While everyone had managed to move on to descaling their fish, I was still stuck trying to clamp kitchen scissors down on the fins. After a heroic struggle (And some help), the fins came off, and I managed to get on with descaling the mullet using the smooth, gliding motions I'd just been taught. There's something quite hypnotic and soothing about the descaling process, and watching the big scales come flaking off the mullet.
My fish (I never got round to naming it) was given a quick blast under the tap before I turned my hand to filleting. The class had been given a thorough demonstration before we'd even touched the fish, and our instructor Eithne's chatty style of teaching meant that even after my epic de-finning and descaling encounter, I still remembered the exact steps I had to undertake. Of course, knowing things in theory and putting them to practice are two different things entirely, so my slab of fish fillet looked a little... Rough around the edges. Still, not bad for my first try! I then had to behead and gut my fish, saving the rest of the bones for stock-making.
Our instructor for the evening was Eithne Neame, the Training School's principal chef trainer. She was a wonderful teacher, who drove the class along with her no-nonsense attitude, and there were more than a few laughs during the evening thanks to her cheery banter. The class progressed in a very relaxed manner, and it wasn't till I looked back on the evening that I realized how much information she'd managed to convey while chatting with us.
We gathered round to watch how the stock was made with a couple of fish bones and a lot of prawn heads, but in the manner of all good cooking shows everywhere, we were given jugs of stock that had been made earlier to use, instead of having to wait around for it to simmer and reduce.
While Eithne was running us through the ins and outs of Fish Stocks and Prawn Shelling 101, a pot of chopped onions, garlic and herbs were distributed on the cooking hobs of every pair of students standing next to each other. We let that start to sweat while shelling our prawn portions. The prawns had been pre-cooked and came with salty pockets of roe, and I couldn't help but snack on
every other prawn a few in the midst of shelling. My kitchen partner caught me in the middle of popping a prawn into my mouth and laughed at me.
Once the onions had a nice sizzle going, we tossed in the bowl of chopped tomatoes and white wine that had been prepared before we got to class. Eithne joked that they had to put the white wine in with the tomatoes because in previous classes people had been nicking sips instead of putting it in the pot. In also went the fragrant jug of fish stock.
While we let our soup simmer, we moved on to the squid. I remember extremely random things from our Aesthetics classes in RGS (Although I can't recall anything from our sewing elective apart from the fact that it was the site of pretty epic Friday Stitch-N-Bitch sessions) and squid prep was one of them. I don't even like squid, but there you go, the brain is a funny thing. Still, it was quite heartening to know that the tricks I learned in secondary school are fairly universal.
It was easy enough to let muscle memory take over as I separated the tentacles from the body sac and plucked off the 'wings', taking the rest of the membrane along with it. From there it was a quick wiggling out of the quill and cleaning of the guts before the body was ready for slicing.
We also reserved the tentacles, using our wickedly sharp kitchen knives to slice away the eyes and beak. The flesh of fresh squid is a nice creamy-translucent colour. If squid has turned pink in any way or starts to smell, throw it out!
The last ingredient for our supper was mussels, and we each got a handful to check for freshness and toss into our pots. A few had beards to be yanked away, but in general we got a nice, firmly closed lot with no cracks to speak of.
With the soup base bubbling, we threw our mussels in first, squishing the chunks of mullet into the empty spaces. As the mussels opened, we added the prawns and let the soup simmer. Once the fish had cooked through and we ascertained that all the mussels had indeed opened, we turned the electric stove off and cooked the squid with a quick stir through the still-hot soup so it wouldn't get too hard. As we cooked, the lovely kitchen assistants helped to clear out work spaces, so we didn't have to clean up after ourselves. Felt thoroughly pampered.
The island counter nearest the door was converted into a dining table for the class, with cutlery and crockery set out for our use. There were also toasted baguette slices with roasted red pepper roulade for us to enjoy with our soup.
I felt quite proud when we plated up our final product and everyone sat down to dinner together. It was a very hearty and flavourful soup, and I even enjoyed the bits of squid in mine, given how fresh and soft it was. After walking through the rain to get to the Seafood Training School, it was exactly the warming meal I needed. When we wrapped up the evening, I got to take home the fish bones, prawn shells and the other half of the fish I'd filleted, as well as that of my kitchen partner, who was headed to a party after and couldn't cart the remains around. Since it was my turn to cook on Saturday, I bagged everything gladly.
When we left, the next day's action was just starting, with most of the work to be done around 2 am. Having only ever been while the market was a noisy and bustling hive of action, it seemed strange to see it so sleepy and quiet. It's one of those places that are lovely in stillness though.