I don’t like fish. There….I said it. I would never choose it on a menu. Any kind of fish. Oh, wait. I do like prawn (shrimp) cocktails. And a lady I know makes a fantastic fish pie that I like. I eat salmon and tuna and I’ll take lobster any day. But I hate fish….at least the fishy smell and the fishy taste. I think it goes back to my younger days when my mum gave my brother and I cod liver oil….straight. And if I wanted a day off school, all I had to do was think of haddock and butter and I threw up. Weird kid. Weirder adult. Any fish I do eat has to be smothered in some kind of sauce. But even then, I only eat fish that is mild. Did I mention I love cod and chips? Strange.
So, it may surprise you to hear that I spent 2 hours in Billingsgate Fish Market in London with my good friend Tony one night about a week ago. It was an all-nighter, the first I’d had since university when burning the midnight oil in order to complete assignments. Like many of you, if it weren’t for the last-minute, I’d never get anything done. Tony goes on a salmon run every so often to deliver packaged, Scottish smoked salmon to posh hotels, high-class restaurants, Jewish delis, a football stadium, under The Shard and Billings Gate, much of central London. He invited me along to see the great city at night when the streets are relatively clear and hotel kitchens are available for inspection.
I was not impressed. I won’t mention any names, but think fancy and expensive and you can guess the rest. One in particular was such a disorganised and filthy mess that I vowed never to eat there if I ever stayed. Yeah…right. I looked at what it cost for a room for one night. That ain’t gonna happen. There were a number of night clubs nearby. The queues were ridiculous and the dresses short….very short. Tony and I decided we dare not linger for fear of going blind. The bouncers looked typically bored. It’s another world to me. I remember going to Discos in the early 1970s but they had nothing on these. Anyway, I’m usually in bed before 10pm, so this was like seeing a movie unfold before me.
I helped Tony carry the boxes of salmon to their destination. Some were quite heavy and as we walked down a set of outside steps to the basements where the kitchens are located. I could barely get through some of the narrow passageways to get to doors where we had to buzz for night service. I don’t think we saw an English person working in the bowls of the hotels so late at night. Only a few intrepid souls were encountered. The rest of the night crawlers were either clubbing or trawling the back streets. One hotel had a labyrinth of corridors and staircases leading to the kitchen. Tony said he had to leave a trail of bread crumbs on his first visit to find his way back to the outside world. The good news is that the kitchen in this place was very clean and well organised and it was one of the cheaper hotels….not cheap, but slightly less expensive than the others we visited.
Then came Billingsgate Fish Market, the largest inland fish market in Britain….and Britain has a lot of fish markets. The market has been around since 1327 when it sold all and sundry as well as fish. Then in the 17th century, the market sold fish exclusively and has had various spellings of the present name since that time. From 1876, the market was in a large stone wharf on the Thames. It’s still there today as a hospitality and events venue, crowned on top at one end with a large iron fish on a weather vane. The move to its present location on the Isle of Dogs near Canary Wharf wasn’t until 1982. It boasts some 140-150 varieties of fish and shellfish from everywhere in the world with around 40 vendors selling to all the major Supermarkets and anyone that sells fish in large amounts. Trading begins at 4am and goes until 8:30 am.
We got there with our load of salmon around 12:30 am. The place was hopping already with vendors setting up their displays for the 4am opening. It was all we could do to stay out of the way. Old trolleys, still in use from eons ago, moved crates of fish….now mostly in polystyrene (styrofoam) boxes containing ice….to the vendors’ stalls. Tony and I walked the aisles looking at all manner of fish….blue ones, orange, multi-coloured, flat, fat, bug-eyed and pin-eyed and sword fish. Eels, clams and oysters, boxes of caviar, lobsters of every size and even a few small sharks rounded off the show…. staring up at us as much as us staring down at them. It was all a bit eerie.
And smelly. The odours in the big vending hall were strong. Very pungent. Good thing they have a cafe on the premises. The menu is large, serving breakfasts of every type given the times the market was open. We had a coffee and a pastry. The walls of the cafe were adorned with photos of vendors and porters (no longer there since 2012) from way back. I know a guy who was a porter here but couldn’t see his photo. All very interesting. sad about the porters though. That was a rather nasty time and a break with a long Billingsgate tradition. For years all you heard was English….a very ripe English at that. Now every tongue is heard and babel ensues.
We left there just before 3am and continued on until the sun came up. Our last call was near Wembley Stadium. Tony dropped me off at my marina around 11:30 in the morning. He still had a few deliveries to make on his way back to his narrow boat at Cropredy. It took me all day to get the fish smell out of my nostrils. But it was a great night. A long night, but never dull when you’re with Tony. Don’t think I’ll be doing that again. That was enough fish for a long time. I’ll never look at a fish in the eyes the same way after that night. Especially the way they look back at me.