I love cooking, but when it comes to seafood dishes my go-to recipes are limited. I admit that I tend to make the same fish dish over and over again. The Mothership therefore decided she would give me the gift of knowledge, and off I went bright and early on a Saturday morning for a day of training at the Billingsgate Seafood School in East London.
Although it’s a hike to get there for an 8:30am kick-off on a Saturday, Billingsgate is like no market I have ever been to. You can buy really fresh fish at incredible prices, which will make you realise how badly we all get ripped off at the supermarket!
Billingsgate is Britain’s largest inland fish market and it has been going strong since 1699! After you get over the wafting smell of fish smacking you in the face upon entry, you will probably feel slightly overwhelmed- like I did seeing the variety of fish available.
Trading in my winter coat for an apron at the start of class, I had an overview tour of how the market operates. Billingsgate sells to trade buyers from Monday to Friday, and to the public on Saturdays only. Typically the fishmongers set up their stalls between midnight and 2am, which is when the market starts selling to sushi chefs, restaurants, bespoke orders, and caterers. On Saturday the retail market is in full swing, and by 8:30am most of the fishmongers are already packing up their remaining goods after selling to the public- so get there early if you want the pick of the lot!
Our fantastic teacher was CJ Jackson, an accomplished gourmet author – I couldn’t recommend her more highly! CJ started off by explaining to the group how you can tell how fresh a fish is by looking at their gills, the color of their eyes, the smell, and texture of the skin.
CJ then made our class of 7 people get down and dirty. She taught us how to clean and prepare a fish by removing its scales, tail, and oh yes, its digestive tract. I definitely wouldn’t recommend this class to anyone who is squeamish or hungover, as you practically feel like a fish surgeon after slicing and dicing Nemo and all his friends.
We learned a variety of ways to cut, de-shell and prepare different types of sea creatures. We then made CJ’s tried and tested seafood marinades and stuffings, which came with fool-proof directions that even I didn’t screw up.
A highlight of the day for me was working with squid, which is something I wouldn’t have dreamed touching unless it was in grilled calamari form. There is something about their eyes, which really creep me out! Think again if you think you have a funny body shape…
After more de-scaling, cutting, cleaning, and thoroughly washing our hands every five seconds, we were ready to watch and learn as CJ worked her magic in the kitchen. Believe it or not but there are pros and cons to cooking a fish with its head on vs. off. CJ taught us all about this as well as how to make a home-made fish stock. Although we didn’t use 12 sticks of butter, Julia Child would have been proud!
The best part about this class is that you get to eat your lesson! I could have been an honor student throughout school if this had been the teaching method. Feast your eyes on this tasty and very healthy mackerel number… yum!
Our friend Squiddy was transformed into a delicious saucy snack bursting with flavour. This was one of my favourite dishes and one I will be sure to re-create soon.
We even experimented with a fish curry sauce. Each member of the class takes several prepared fish home, which makes it easier than ever to motivate yourself to try these recipes chez vous.
I’m not sure my fried fish will ever turn out as perfectly crisped as CJ’s, but a glass of wine does help make you feel you’re cooking like a pro!
Billingsgate Seafood School offers all kinds of classes, and in case you are running out of gift ideas in the run-up to Christmas, you can give gift vouchers. After all, surely lean low-fat fish will be a healthy way to start New Year right? Although my kitchen is still recovering from my Thanksgiving cook-out, I will be sure to return to Billingsgate to stock up for my next extravaganza dinner party!