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To eat well… or rather not to eat

Billingsgate Fish Market

Billingsgate Fish Market is located in east London, in the south-east corner of the City, not far from where it was originally established, and it is surrounded by huge buildings in which the most important British banks have put their offices. It opens everyday from 5 am to 8.30 am except on Mondays. It does open on Sundays, but they only sell shellfish, not fish.

The best way to get there is by underground. In Bank station (you can arrive there in the Central line, the red one) take the DLR towards Beckton and get off in Poplar; that is the closest station.

You still need to walk for about 10 minutes, but there is no way you get lost, as the building is quite visible. There will always be people around with trolleys and plastic bags going towards the place, so just follow them. They will give you bags in the market, but just one, so it is recommendable to bring some yourself to avoid unlikeable incidents.

Even if it is going to be a warm day, in the area is humid and foggy because of its location, so grab a coat (or a jacket if it is Summer), and wear confortable shoes with two or three pair of shocks. No kidding. The floor is continously wet, as the vendors are always cleaning the area with watering hoses, so although you are wearing good shoes, these can absorb humidity very easily.

Once inside it is advisible to have a look at all the stalls before purchasing any sea food.

The sellers are mainly English, Chinese, Indian and a few of them, Turkish. The Chinese sell basically frozen fish; and be careful with some Indians and Turkish, who will try to sell you fish from doubtful procedence, that they expose without ice whatsoever and with a horrible appearance.

Coming from a city by the seaside in the north of Spain where the fish is always absolutely  fresh, that is unaccetable. I do not understand how can they think that the fish can be kept in ambient temperature. It is advisable to buy shellfish only when this is alive, and fish when this is on top of clean ice. I was horrified whenever I saw men expecting to sell dead lobsters and crabs (obviously at cheaper prices) and also whenever I found fish rotting in dirty-with-blood water; and this was so common in the market!

You have to avoid those stalls if you want to get fresh fish from the Billingsgate Fish Market. The shellfish has to be alive and if the fish is inside water, it obviously means that the ice has melted some time ago. If the ice is dirty it just means that someone has changed the ice but beware… the fish has started rotting! Do not let them trick you.

This was the only stall selling lobsters and crabs alive.

The best seller, for me, it was James Nash & Son Ltd. It has the freshest sea food from all the market, without a doubt.

Once you have walked across the whole market you will have had the opportunity to see the fish and shellfish that look best, and the more attractive prices as well. They even sell sharks! With a terrible appearance, though…

Sellers are friendly; they will tell you all their prices plus they will give you tips on how to cook the fish.

The scallops are great, usually king size, and they can be bought at £15.50, £16.50 or £20.00. I tried the ones at £15.50 because they looked even better than the others, and they were fresh and very tasty, so I would recommend you go for those ones (as long as they look fresh). They are sold in a 1kg box. Cook them in a pan with very hot olive oil (just a little bit), rock salt, plenty of garlic and fresh pursley on top: they will be just amazing.

The market is really busy from 6:00 am till 8 am. At 8:30 am is practically empty.

This gentleman´s name is Roger and he is the most mediatic seller at Billingsgate Fish Market (if you Google to find about the market, he will come up several times). The fish he is selling, though, is not the most popular or, most importantly, fresh.

I bought several pieces from the market: anchovies (1 kg at only £4,50; cheap although not completely fresh); sea bream (6 for £5); frozen big king prawns (4 boxes at £10, worth it); frozen squid (3 boxes at £4.50); cod (£10/kg, a bit expensive for what it was), king scallops (£15.50/kg, fresh and worth it); and, the best of all,  monkfish (£10/kg, totally worth it).

It is a bit annoying to clean and I would highly recommend eating it in a good restaurant. It is not just to cut its ugly face  (which I did not want to paste here, to avoid scaring someone), and neither the thick skin of its “neck”, but also the rebel thin layer of skin that covers its body. It seems a bit like plastic and it is really hard to remove. If you do not remove it prior to cooking, then I guess you could just peel this one later, but it would be annoying.

There are several ways to cook the monkfish, but for me, the best is to cut it into medium pieces and deep fry them (with flour and egg). In Spain is very typical to order it like this, as “Fritos de Rape” or “Fritos de Pixín” (in Asturias). If the fish is fresh, you will remember the experience! The monkfish is very popular because it tastes very similar to the lobster, but it is easier and cleaner to eat. Simply delicious.

Regarding the prices at the Billingsgate market, I do not think it is extremelly cheap, but it is definitely cheaper than in the super markets and you can buy much fresher sea food, so it is worth a try.

What the Wiki tells us about this market…

Billingsgate Fish Market takes its name from Billingsgate, a ward in the south-east corner of the City of London, where the riverside market was originally established. In its original location in the 19th century, Billingsgate was the largest fish market in the world.[1]

Billingsgate Wharf, close to Lower Thames Street, became the centre of a fish market during the 16th and 17th centuries but did not become formally established until an Act of Parliament in 1699.[2] In 1849, the fish market was moved off the streets into its own riverside building, designed by J. B. Bunning and built by John Jay, which was demolished around 1873 and replaced by an arcaded market hall designed by City architect Horace Jones and built by John Mowlem & Co. in 1875.[3] This building, known as Old Billingsgate Market, is now used chiefly as an office and corporate events venue.

The writer George Orwell worked at Billingsgate in the 1930s, as did the Kray twins in the 1950s.

In 1982, the fish market was relocated to a new 13-acre (53,000  sq m) building complex on the Isle of Dogs, close to Canary Wharf. Most of the fish sold through the market now arrives there by road, from ports as far afield as Aberdeen and Cornwall.

The infamously coarse language of London fishmongers made “Billingsgate” a byword for crude or vulgar language.[4] One of its earliest uses can be seen in a 1577 chronicle by Raphael Holinshed, where the writer makes reference to the foul tongues of Billingsgate oyster-wives.

The market is depicted during Tudor times in Rosemary Sutcliff‘s 1951 children’s historical novel The Armourer’s House.

Billingsgate Market is open from Tuesday to Saturday. Trading commences at 5 a.m. and finishes at 8:30 a.m. Security for the market is provided by the private Market Constabulary.[5]

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