Ok so going by the title, you already know what this review is about. I like Billingsgate. A lot. When I was small, it was a place where my dad used to bring me every once in a while in his sapphire blue Ford Cortina estate so he could pick up stock for the restaurant where he was the Chef. It’s the same one I used to projectile vomit in after a Big Mac meal washed down chocolate milk shake. It was character building for us both, but probably more for my Dad as he had to clean it all up. You see, the drive back home after our weekly junk food visits was of an unbearable kind as I used to get instant car sickness, not because I was delicate, it was owed to the car constantly smelling like the docks on a blistering summers day. It was our only car which meant it was the mode of transport to school, to the Big Mac meals and to Billingsgate. Dad never cleaned it so it always smelt like where seafood goes to die – the smell could knock down walls or make children projectile vomit. Oh, the fond memories I have. Fast forward a fistful of years, yet here I am again. Not to pick up stock, but to learn about the virtues of fish cookery and what a place to do so.
At first you attend to the rudimental things and visit Billingsgate Cafe – it’s an institution of sorts in one of the corners of the market and they aim to feed the busy vendors and greedy punters like me. I heard they’re famed for their scallops but opted for a bacon sarnie and it was a mighty fine one at that. It came hotly buttered, with rustically cut farm house brown with back bacon that was crispy and caramelised in all of the right places. I doused with their generic brown sauce for maximum effect. Take note that It’s ideal to nourish early doors as you won’t be fed again until mid afternoon.
And this is where the magic happens.
So before we put our chefs’ whites on, we’re given and crash course on how to spot a fresh or stale fish. And the five virtues of a fresh fish are; red gills, an indication that the blood hasn’t seeped out of them; a mild un-fishy odour; the body remains taut and not floppy, an indication that rigor mortis hasn’t kicked in – in the same vein, if the fish is filleted, the flesh springs back and remains firm if you press it and the layers of flakes remain tight; and finally if the fish is slimy then walk away, this is signs of it going bad.
The crowd in the group were a mix bag, from mothers’ dragging their daughters’ along, to husbands who came alone who were gifted the experience by their loved ones or boyfriends with their girlfriends.
Here is the fish sketch used to help us learn about how to spot a duff fish.
The essentials to fish prep.
Our class teacher was full of anecdotes, grace and knowledge – she was more than happy to tend to those who required a bit more attention. We learnt about how to fillet a bass, sole and plaice. Other skills included how to prepare a squid, from gutting to the peeling of its undesirable membrane, to how to peel and gut prawns with a cocktail stick, to making a seafood bisque.
We use the scraps for the base of our bisque
Here is the prep of our baked plaice stuffed with tomatoes and home made pesto. Only our teacher, her name escapes me, got to apply her silky skills on this fish, I assume it was down to costings.
Then there was the demonstration of how to expertly dismantle and fillet our soles before we were unleashed on them.
Here’s what I did.
Clean to the bone like how it should be.
Here are the rest of the ingredients for our seafood bisque, remember we had created the stock previously. There is also a pot of dressing for our cooked squid that we prepared. This is where the feast began.
The plaice stuffed with pesto and cherry tomatos
The kitchen prepared prawn and samphire remoulade, salt fish cakes with a tomato salsa, along with a salted pollack brandade for our starters.
Our sensai got to work to rustle up the rest of our lunch.
The baked bass with a herby crumb is a case in point when you come to a place where they respect fish so much, high level cookery of it is standard.
Mussels with wine and herb sauce demanded to be sucked out of their shells.
We then got a medley and seafood with a good splattering of viscous bisque sauce. The bass came with a crisp skin and flesh that delicately fell apart. The prawns gave their confectionary sweetness and the mussels also featured again.
Finally we got the inhale the delectable sole with a simple, yet effective beurre noisette caper sauce. It was a testament to how good fresh fish can be.
When did I go? Nov 2017
The damage: Since it was my birthday treat, I can’t comment.
The good: If you want to have a bacon sarnie worth waking up for then it’s nailed here. If you want see some real action of how our City’s fish is traded, from lively porters who only know how to swear, to seeing crate fulls of boggling eyes that belong to sea creatures looking at you. Then it’s named here. And if the school is campaigning on how to tell how fresh a fish is, to how to prepare and cook it with respect then, they’ve got that covered too. Oh and you get to take a good amount home.
The bad: If you like sleeping in then don’t come here.
Would I go again? Now that I’ve done it, I can only recommend it to you
Address: Billingsgate Market, Trafalgar Way, London, E14 5ST