Sushi Masterclass at Billingsgate Fish Market

beep beep beep…it’s 4:45am and my alarm’s chirping loudly, am I up this early because I’m going on holiday? Nope, I’m going to Billingsgate Fish Market for their Sushi and Sashimi masterclass with Emi Kazuko. I’m in my battered Toyota and driving through the streets of London by 5am and it’s like a scene out of 28 days later, with nothing but me and the odd mini cab taking home all nighters. The sun comes up as I cross Tower Bridge. After a few wrong turns and three circuits of the roundabout underneath Canary Wharf, I eventually find the entrance to the Market. The car park’s packed and hordes of people are coming out carrying large bin liners full of fish. There’s a lot of Oriental restauranteurs who I presume like to see their fish banging fresh and from the wholesaler before buying rather than rely on a third party supplier.
Restaurant owners and members of the publicI ask two City of London Market Constables the way to the Fish School, and they direct me upstairs to the first floor where I’m greeted by one of the representatives of the Market who along with his two colleagues are also the on site Environmental Health officers. Due to the hideous time of the morning I forget to remember his name. Other delegates arrive and we all shuffle about yawning and watching the market in full swing below, it’s amazing to watch.

About 6:15 we kick off with a short talk and introduction to the market, before heading downstairs. We’re warned about the choice language of the porters, who have a reputation for swearing like…. fish porters. In olden times Billingsgate became a byword for crude or vulgar language. However I’m with Billy Connolly who said there are no bad words, only words used badly. Then we’re down the stairs and exploring the market. The market’s also open to the public, though you probably have to buy a decent amount, it’s not like Borough put it that way. Personally I thought the porters and sellers were a great bunch of guys, laughing and joking with each other, shouting ‘mind your legs’ and half haggling half flirting with the Chinese Ladies buying fish for their restaurants. One even whistled a sort of ‘beep-boop’ as he moves, sounding like the noise large vehicles like buses make when reversing. All of them knew about their products, their sources, their cost, and how to use them. I got the sense that everyone there was a professional, it’s hard work and unsocial hours, and that must keep out a lot of chancers more than other industries.

Our guide (what’s his name?! …Let’s call him Dave as it was something English and Biblical), Dave explained how the porter system worked. It’s heavily unionised, and only porters or the managing directors of the Companies can move fish. Porters get paid 14p and pound (I think) for moving fish, which doesn’t sound much, but Billingsgate, unlike any other fish market in Western Europe is a sample market, where fish isn’t bought by auction. And everything displayed is a sample or representation of what the wholesaler has in bulk in the back. And the porters are dealing in bulk orders and so moving large amounts of fish. Dave said that a porter can earn over £500 a week for 4 hours work a day. All porters working in the Market are licensed by the City of London, and it’s a long standing and noble trade. Michael Cain’s dad was a Porter in Billingsgate when Cain was born and there’s some nice recollections from Ted Lewis who was a porter for 50 years here.

Bluetooth headset and Straw hatDover SoleThe market starts endingTop Chaps

Everyone we spoke to seemed interested in talking to us and didn’t mind us being there, I guess because the more we see of this fascinating world, the more we get to understand it and protect it. Billingsgate is right next to Canary Wharf, on land that developers must get wet dreams over. Remember Covent Garden used to be a working vegetable market, now it’s out at Vauxhall and hardly a top tourist destination. Since 2005 there’s been a review of all London’s markets, and talk about moving or consolidating them and rehousing them, probably further out of Central London. I think we need these markets accessible to remind us where food comes from and what it actual is.

Other things I noticed about the market was how 80s it was. built in 1982 when it moved from the historical ward of Billingsgate, it had that hexagonal red brick 80s feel. Also all the phones the dealers still used were bright yellow industrial BT models straight from the Maureen Lipman ‘ology’ era that still rang with a bell sound, worked fine though. One stall holder summed up the changing times, sporting a straw boater, a fine moustache and a bluetooth phone ear piece. Dave talked us through some examples, first up Lobster. On the left is a young Canadian male, on the right an older native Scottish female. Lobsters take 7 or 8 years to reach catching age, the female one on the right could have been nearly 30 years old. They’re hard to farm because of their aggressive territorial nature. You can tell the difference as North American ones have a small horn on their noses, where as natives slope down to nothing.

Canadian Lobster (left) and scottish (right)Dregged scallopThe market starts endingTurbot (left) and Brill (right)
Next we look at razor clams and scallops. Dave opens a dredged scallop. These retail for about £1.50 a dozen, where as hand dived can cost £2 each. The difference is that a: hand dived don’t rip the sea bed to pieces, and b: they aren’t full of mud and grit, as the dredger pushes it all in the ‘minding it’s own business feeding mouth open’ scollop before scooping it up. Hand caught can be fresher too, as they come ashore quicker. So don’t scrimp on the scallops man.
Next we look at range of other fish, Brill and Turbot, similar looking, but for some reason Brill costs more. The way to tell is that Brill’s skin is smooth when you run your fingers over in both directions, where as Turbot is rough like a cats tongue when rubbed head to tail. Hake, isn’t given half the respect it deserves, Dover Sole is one of the few fishes that you need to keep for a few days to enable removing the skin.

We move round some other parts of the market, but by 7ish the main business of the day is done and dusted and everyone’s finalising and clearing up. At 7:30am (a time I’m normally just opening one sleepy bloodshot eye) we head upstairs back to the class room for a traditional Japanese breakfast cooked by Emi and her faithful assistant Kiko.
It consists of smoked kippers, rice, pickles and an omelette roll, I have to say that eating a hot whole fish with chop sticks at half seven in the morning while looking at the ‘go getters’ in the gym in the basement of the Barclay’s building across the creek in Canary Wharf certainly ranks as an new experience. A good one mind.
BreakfastExplaining the Fish we'll be usingHead off a Sea BassGutting a Mackerel

After breakfast and a coffee we settle down to a lecture on the fish we’d be using during the day from the other expert there, Esme, in the cold room. She talks us through what to look for in a fish, freshness, usage, where it comes from etc. If you see a Mackerel with a damaged jaw, that’s a good sign, as it means it was line caught rather than net caught. Then we suit up with aprons on top of our white overalls and select a mackerel to fillet.

This is great fun, then we move through filleting squid, Dover sole and opening oysters. We’re up against the clock now and sadly don’t get time to take apart the sea bass, as we have to move on to Emi’s Japanese cooking section.
Billingsgatemaking makiwatching in the mirrorThree Sashimi dishes
Emi explains who she is and her history, she then runs through some basic dishes, Tempura prawns and Teriyaki salmon,we all try some. She then shows us to salads, one with western salad leaves like rocket and lettuce and one with sea vegetables. For the first one we use our previously filleted Dover sole, blanched in boiling water for 20 seconds. For the sea vegetable one we use the raw mackerel. The dressing on the sea vegetables is made from dashi. We also make a pressed sea bass sashimi hakata style. which is a sea bass fillet, halved, then you place long strips of cucumber and ginger along one half, before placing the other half on and pressing for a while. We go back to the demonstration area and try some oysters with a traditional Japanese dressing and how to cook bonito. I’ve got the recipes for everything we did on the day, but am too lazy to type them out, so if you want a copy, either contact me or buy Emi’s book.

BillingsgateBillingsgateBillingsgateBillingsgate
By now it’s after lunchtime, and we move on to maki or rolled sushi, as well as nigiri and uramaki or California rolls. We learn about the shiso, which is a herb that tastes like a mix of basil and mint, and is often used in sushi. You also see plastic ones in those sushi sets. Emi recommends never putting sushi in the fridge, as this can make the rice go hard. Ideally it should always be made fresh and eaten within a few hours. So all that sushi you see in Marks and Spencer’s and Pret was probably made a 48 hours ago and has to be chilled – hence the rice can be a little chewy and gooey. I’ve tried a couple of times to make maki, and know how hard it is. My friends Xuan showed my how to make them, she says it’s easy, but then she’s been making them for ages. I find that though I can now make one, I’ve yet to get the filling bang in the centre every time. But like anything it takes practice. There’s a touch of the Generation game now as most of the group overload their nori sheets with rice which is a common mistake. Still, everyone has a go and at least gets something edible and half decent. with that a we have a few more beers and divvy up the fish that’s left over.

left over fish call cooked up with Bread and Rocket Salad
On the way home I’m thinking about what to do with all these bits of left over fish, I’ve got a mackerel fillet, some squid, some salmon, some tuna, some Dover sole and some sea bass. I thought about a bouillabaisse, but that’s a fair bit of effort and I’m knackered. Thai fish curry? Could do, but again, fair bit of effort as I’d want to do it properly, and we’ve no coriander in, also it’d sort of mask the taste of the fish. In the end I decide to keep it simple, and griddle cook the oily fish (salmon, tuna, mackerel) and lightly poach the sea bass and sole in a stock of half water, half white wine, parsley, pepper corns and half a lemon. I serve all this up on a large chopping board with a simple salad of rocket and parsley and slices of toasted bread. And yes I am drinking red wine with it, a crime for which James Bond kills a man in From Russia with Love, but as new Bond said in Casino Royale ‘Do I look like a give a damn‘.

I had a great time at the market, it was fascinating to see a side of London life few people ever see. On the one hand you want people to eat more fish as it’s healthy and good for you. On the other there’s the whole question of sustainability, as today’s Times points out, one expert thinks Fish will vanish from British waters in 20 years. At Billingsgate there’s fish from all over the world, and a lot of it is flown in. Dave told us that they can get fish from Florida as quickly as from Scotland these days, but at what cost? It looks like we’re going to have to face some tough decisions about where and how we source our food in the years to come, but it sure is tasty.

PS. Hello all the people I met on the course! Please leave a comment underneath on what you thought of the day too. Here’s a link to the best pictures that I took on the day on Flickr. If they’re just for your personal use feel free to download them. If any of you or Emi or anyone from the school want to use them in a commercial way, please ask first, you can email me at eyedropper -at- mac -dot- com Thanks.

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1 Response to “Sushi Masterclass at Billingsgate Fish Market”



  1. 1 Sushi Masterclass at Billingsgate Fish Market « Tom Steel Trackback on September 20, 2007 at 1:52 pm

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