BILLINGSGATE FISH MARKET: BYE BYE LEX
The start of what was potentially one of the best food related few days of my life began on Tuesday at 4.30am as I walked down to London Bridge to catch the first train to Canary Wharf.
My irrepressible friend, Lex, who I met on my travels, was enjoying her last few days in London before flying back to Malaysia and, as a treat had asked her “Uncle” Simon to introduce her to the joys of Billingsgate Fish Market. It is a bit of a pointless exercise if you arrive after 6am as much of the business of the day will already have been concluded and, if you arrive nearer 7am, just about all you will see is people packing up for the day.
Even at a little after 5.30am, as we fought our way into the main hall, there was a feeling that we had missed the main event. People headed back to their cars and vans laden down with the fish and seafood they would need to stock up their restaurants and shops for the day. Still there was plenty to see and plenty of sights to persuade Lex to whip out her SLR making me feel very inadequate about my little, er point and shoot.
It’s many years since I had been to Billingsgate, and it’s definitely changed. Many more stalls are dedicated to the supply of London’s ethnic communities and you are just as likely to see fish to delight the Chinese, Thai and Bangladeshis as you are to find traditional sellers of the skate, salmon and eels which made the market famous.
There remain elements however which identify Billingsgate as a true London market. Lex loved the shouts of the porters and stall owners as they called trying to do a deal on their last supplies of the day. She also seemed to enjoy her introduction to another great British Tradition, kippers for breakfast.
In one of the small market cafes, a long line was already forming as the porters, just about finished for the day, replenished their stores of energy with unfeasibly large breakfasts of bacon sandwiches and “full English” Lex went to grab a seat by a wall covered in photographs dedicated to some of the market’s famous faces, while I joined the queue for ten minutes and returned having ordered her a “Kipper Breakfast” and a mug of coffee. When it arrived, Lex stared with a look that was an equal mixture of fascination and horror, but being a game girl she tucked in.
The eggs and tomatoes were, as to be expected, greasy spoon dreadful. But, as they also should be, the kippers were delicious, just steamed with a dollop of butter on them. Unless you were lucky enough, as I was at the beginning of the year when I visited Robson’s in Craster, to cook them fresh from the smoking room, then these were as good as you were going to get.
Lex struggled with the bones, but seemed to enjoy her first experience of kipperage and polished off most of her fish before we headed back into the market for her to buy some fish for a last supper in the UK she was planning that evening. She decided against squid and Monkfish and made her way to one of the stalls selling shrimp, lobsters, crabs and crayfish and came away with a tray of beautiful looking prawns for about £13.
Not a bad haul and a kipper breakfast was not a bad way to say goodbye to my young friend Lex. Even if I did have to leave the house at 4.30am.