Thursday, 21 August 2014

A high speed tour of Billingsgate fish market in London

Billingsgate fish market, London
Rising at 4am to reach the market at Canary Wharf, walking down the wind tunnels between tall green glass buildings. Traders from the city and traders in fish, it's all the same thing. Ken Condon, 76 years old, 46 years in the fish trade, takes us around Billingsgate market. I'm the only woman amongst the men. There is one Sri Lankan guy who works in the fish trade. The others are cooks and smokers, as in, they smoke fish.
What Ken doesn't know about fish isn't worth knowing. He sprints up to the white polystyrene boxes, digs his hand in, peers at the fish critically with an expert eye.
'That one should have been sold a couple of days ago'
The fishmonger selling it smiles and Ken winks at him 'There's always tomorrow eh?'
Ken says, as an aside, sotto voce 'Tomorrow's Saturday, the day the public come to buy'.
The implication being that the public, who don't know what's what, will buy this fish.
 'It's all right, but it's not at it's best' he reassures us.
'How do you know that a fish is fresh?' Ken asks us, picking up a fish by the eye, a thumb and finger in each socket.
'The eyes?' I suggest.
 'The gills?' says another.
'The eyes don't matter really. What you want is to pull open the gills.' Ken fans out the slit in the neck of the fish.
Inspecting the gills of a fish for freshness
'What colour is the blood? Is it dark? That's old. You want red gills. Press the flesh, is it firm? You are looking for body tone and lustre. It should have no smell. Hold the fish up, does it have rigor? Rigor mortis. Then it's fresh.'
Ken pointed at some Icelandic halibut, pale, overspilling the box with their length: 'These are £400 to £500 pounds each. The bigger the better'
Halibut, Billingsgate

Ken Condon, Fishmonger, Billingsgate

The smokehouse at the back of Condon Fishmongers

Ken ran a 'wet and dry fishmonger' in Vauxhall, Condon fishmongers. Eventually he sold it but the new people couldn't keep up with the work and today it is a hairdresser. He had an old kiln, with a brick dated 1902.
'Nowadays smoking is done in a modern kiln. But you get a better smoke in an old kiln.'
'When smoking a fish the curing and salting is the most important part. I use large salt to take the moisture out. Then I wash it, brush the flesh then drain it before smoking.'
Can you freeze smoked salmon? 'Don't advise it. I don't like vacuum packed smoked salmon either, it spoils quickly once opened.'
As we bolt through the market, Ken talks rapidly, a sequence of staccato sentences, like the Word of God. This is hard-worn experience talking. I try to note it all down, but he goes so fast.
  • Chamberlains in Leadenhall Market is the best fish restaurant in London according to Ken.
  • Dover sole is a popular restaurant fish
  • They still use ounces in the fish market.
  • West Country sole, best there is. South coast sole, impossible to skin. 
Ken thinks commercially. He thinks about which fish is easy to prepare and which fish you get a good amount of flesh from, that you can filet easily. He also thinks about how long the fish lasts. All this affects the profitability of a fishmongers. More....
  • Cornish lemon sole is the best.
  • Lemon sole from Scotland has only half the life of Cornish sole.
  • Scottish cod and haddock, best in the world.
  • Plaice is best from the Faroe islands.
  • Scottish plaice from Wick goes off too quickly.
  • Red mullets, a warm water fish, fished from the Gulf stream, cod and turbot 'benefit from going over'.
 'Going over' is fishmonger talk for ageing. 'Sometimes the fish has to relax. The rigor's got to go off.' I remember I had very fresh cod in the Shetlands, it had no flavour at all. It needs a couple of days to mature.
  • South American red mullet, different fish.
  • Norway cod, not in same league as Peterhead (Scotland).
  • Fish swim on a shelf. Low swimmers are plaice.
  • Norway and Iceland had the good sense to keep out of the EU. They have control over their fish stocks.
  • Monkfish is from the North Atlantic, it's overrated but it absorbs flavours. Same with prawns. 
  • Look at this bass: it's got lustre, sheen, body tone.
  • Look here at these Shetland Island mussels grown on a rope.
  • The Native oyster season ends on May 15th. After that you have a milty oyster, the sperm of an oyster.
  • Oysters should be tight, round and heavy. Don't buy long ones, they haven't been fed properly, they've tried to grow in order to reach the food, not good sign.
  • Maldon oysters are good but West Ireland oysters are better.
  • Bi-vulves are filter feeders. That's why they are the most dangerous for food poisoning.
  • Looking at clams: hard stone, cherry stone, palourdes from West Ireland, very high value. 
  • Alaskan pollock is filth, cat food.
  • Razor clams, grill or steam, very chewy, like a whelk. Considered an aphrodisiac in Korea.
  • Grouper is a good eater.
  • Scottish hake is best smoked. English hake is sold to Spain. We buy imported South African hake.
  • English people are getting lazy with what they eat, they want to be on their iPads, don't want to cook.
  • Look at this octopus, the head has been sold to Spain. The Spanish get our best seafood, they are willing to pay more.
The eel drawers, Billingsgate

Stroking an eel, Billingsgate
Ken stops at a bank of metal drawers which contain eels. Londoners ate eels until the railways came. The Dutch saved Londoners during the plague, otherwise they would have starved. No one would come into the city to feed them. They'd send their barges up the Thames and send their wives in to sell eels. He carefully takes a black eel from a drawer and places it on a table while stroking the top of the head. The eel becomes drowsy. It's like taming alligators.
Crab genitals
Ken pulls out some crabs, a male and a female. He shakes a crab 'if it rattles and clacks, don't buy it, it's full of water'.
  • The female has two vaginas and the male, two penises. 
  • How do they mate? With great difficulty. The female has to come out of her shell in order to mate. Soft shell crabs are illegal in the UK, those we get are imported frozen from the States. 
  • Eat female crabs in summer, male crabs the rest of the year.
  • A crab will lay a million eggs but only 1 to 3 survive to adulthood.
  • Crabs take four years to grow. It's illegal to sell a crab of less than 4.5 inches
  • Never boil a crab or lobster alive. Drown them in fresh water first or stab them through the brain. If you boil them alive, the males will moult their legs.
  • Farmed freshwater prawns are tasteless, better to buy sea prawns
  • North Atlantic prawns, cooked on the boat, are best. 
  • But if the tail isn't tucked under, don't eat it. It was dead before boiling.
  • Best way to keep shellfish: soak a newspaper & cover them, leave somewhere cool. Don't put them in the fridge, the cold dry air of a fridge kills them.
  • Flesh of a fish should never come into contact with ice
There is still a market for dyed smoked fish. The English buy with their eyes, not their taste buds. 
smoked and dyed fish, Billingsgate

  • Undyed Manx kippers are the best.
  • Hot smoked sprats are time consuming, labour intensive, but very good. If Ken smoked them in his smokehouse, he couldn't sell them quickly enough. 
    Buckler, bloater, herring. Billingsgate fish.
    Buckler, bloater, herring. 

  • Abroath smokies, Billingsgate
    • Arbroath smokies, unique flavour. From Scotland. 
    Blond wing,fish.
    • Ray blonde wing, from the Indian ocean. Like a leopard. Skate is striped. Roker is the best eater but the skin is very thick. 
    Billingsgate fish inspector, company of Fishmongers, London

    In Billingsgate there are three fish inspectors, employed by the fishmongers company, a livery company started in 1272, a 700 year old guild, they take a sample from each batch and test the quality. As a result, London is a very safe fish market.
    D cut.
    • Always take out the pin bones before slicing a smoked salmon. 
    • Use electrical pliers, just as good as tweezers.
    • Two ways of slicing salmon: long cuts and 'd' cuts.
    • Always slice towards your hand.
    • Pelicule, the hard skin, is the tastiest bit and is the cheapest.
    • Ken leaves the fatty sides on the salmon while smoking. He cuts them off just before slicing.
    • When slicing, he prefers not to move the filet about too much.
    Long cut

    The second part of the day we went to the kitchen and learnt how to make good fish stock, salted cod, gravad lax, escabeche, brandade, hot smoked prawns, and how to filet and gut a fish. This is all informations for other posts!
    I did this tour courtesy of Billingsgate Fish Cookery school. Highly recommended.


    1. Highly entertaining! The staccato writing made me feel like running along on the tour. And left me a bit sad living in landlocked Austria.

      1. Aw! If you ever come to London, do either visit Billingsgate (near Canary Wharf) or even better, go on one of their courses. Best thing I've done for a long time.

    2. A brilliant post! It was as if I was eavesdropping on your tour. S o much information. I loved the comment about pollock and cat food. We often have it served at charity fish fries in Bermuda. I t's not a patch on the sweet cod I had last night from my local chippy while on a tripmback home. to Surrey. Keep up the good work! You clearly appeal to the international subscribers.

      1. Thank you. I got the benefit of Bills' 46 years of experience, actually probably more, because his father ran the fishmongers before he did, so he grew up with it. It's in his blood (or should I say gills?)

    3. Absolutely fascinating, thank you for sharing

      Rosie x

    4. I did a few shots there for a piece too, went home with two phone numbers from guys ;)
      Luckily they were kidding ;o)

      1. Haha really? I didn't get great pictures, not to my usual standard, but it was so early (I'm an owl) and the whole thing was so fast in the market. I'd like to go back.
        It was hard to take notes, tweet, photograph at the same time.

    5. So much brilliant information. I'm trying to learn a lot more about fish and did a course down in Devon recently. The biggest fish market for British fish is now Brixham (Billingsgate also sells imported fish) and more goes to Spain in lorry load after lorry load than is sold to the people in the UK. Such a shame we don't value what comes from our waters.
      It sounds as though you went at 100 mph with makes me want to sign up immediately for this tour and course.

      1. Hi Sally,
        I'm now in Alaska and will be reporting on the Pacific fish Sitka tomorrow, stay tuned!
        And yes, book that course, it's brilliant

    6. Great post Kerstin, I very much enjoyed reading, thank you!

    7. awful piece of information, I had come to know about your blog from my friend vimal, mumbai,i have read atleast 3 posts of yours by now, and let me tell you, your blog gives the best and the most interesting information. This is just the kind of information that i had been looking for, i'm already your rss reader now and i would regularly watch out for the new posts, once again hats off to you! Thanks a million once again, Regards, cornish hen recipe


    I would love to hear what you think of this post! I try to reply to every comment (if there is a delay, I am probably away from an internet connection or abroad)