Note: This entry has been restored from old archives.
We awaken at 04:45 on Friday morning. It is dark, below zero and foggy outside. By 05:30 we’re up at Rickmansworth tube station, the first steps of our quest behind us. Plan? Get to Billingsgate Fish Market before 07:00 then move on to Smithfield Meat Market by 09:00. Inventory? One backpack containing two small umbrellas, a London street map, a camera and two large blocks of ice wrapped in plastic bags and tea-towels. Goals? Fresh fish (sashimi grade) and Reindeer (or Elk) steak.
I’m under-dressed for the temperature, as usual, and eagerly await the arrival of the day’s first Metro-line train. The temperature is -3°C and I can’t feel my nose anymore. The train arrives and, thankfully, it’s warm inside. Twenty-five minutes later we alight at Finchley Road to swap to the Jubilee line. The Jubilee line train is cold, it seems the city tube trains are not fitted with heating like the outer suburbs ones are. Thirty minutes on this frigid train gets us to Canary Wharf. I wonder if the name comes from the area being a cannery? Having been the centre of London’s seafood supply for a very long time makes this seem plausible, and there is an area to the north-east called “Canning Town”. Relying on areas having been historically spelt “correctly” here doesn’t get you very far. However, an area to the south is named Isle of Dogs, so there lies an entirely different potential namesake.
From the bowels of Canary Wharf tube station we make our way to the surface, pleased that the temperature seems somewhat warmer. Then we step outside. Ouch. We step into a freezer, a freezer that looks entirely unlike what I expected. Being a “wharf” I expected an industrial look; what we get is skyscrapers, bank buildings, we’re on Bank Street. A short stroll down Bank Street takes you over a canal, past a rather extreme security check point (can’t let the terrorists demolish the banks maybe?) and to Billingsgate Market. In fact, you find yourself on the outside of the ten foot high fence that surrounds the market. You look around: to the south is a security check point, to the north is a busy highway, to the west the highway continues around a bend, and to the east the Billingsgate fence continues alongside the highway and fades into the foggy distance. E. After ten minutes following the fence we reach the end and rather than walk another 100 metres to the road junction we follow the reverse path of a man who climbs over a low hedge. He’s 6’6″ and built like a bouncer, black, dreadlocked, well dressed in a designer trench coat, and carrying a black plastic bin bag pregnant with heavy looking objects. Not what you want to see jumping over a hedge ahead of you in the fog. After a moment of concern my cold-slowed brain catches up and realises that what we have is just a happy seafood shopper taking a short-cut.
Short-cut behind us, we wander through the Billingsgate carpark and up to the markets proper. It’s 07:00, below zero and foggy outsize. We step into the market hall, I think it’s still below zero, it’s a large hall filled with stands and packed with shoppers. It’s the Friday before Christmas day, we wonder if this means the market is busier than usual or if this is a normal morning. I recall the Sydney Fish Market: a sleek, albeit fishy, shopping mall compared to Billingsgate. Where in Sydney there is more a collection of fish shops than a market, at Billingsgate there is the seeming utter chaos of a real market. Now we’re cook’n with fire. Photography is prohibited unless you have first obtained a permit from the management. It’s a busy business environment, I guess they want to try to avoid having it clogged with insomniac tourists and other ad-hoc and amateur photographers. No photos for us!
Our fishing takes longer than expected, there is a lot to choose from and a lot of knowledge we lack when it comes to picking fish suitable for sashimi. In the end we purchase four beautiful little red snapper for £10. We also pick up a pack of 13 frozen salmon steaks, two boxes of frozen baby squid (1kg) and two boxes of frozen king-prawns (1.4kg). It all squeezes into the backpack. We set off only 30 quid lighter.
Mistakes do happen, the next thing we did was step into the foul dimension of the Golden Arches. It is 09:00, below zero and foggy outside. The trap lies immediately outside the Billingsgate gates. I have not touched the evil wares of this terrible place for years, and even then it was only for fries. Maybe it has changed? Maybe after all the recent hype they’re better? They have bagels on the menu! OK, a bagel with cheese, egg, and sausage – does that sound so bad? I should have known better, I should have realised that evil ways never change. The mistake was made, I learned my lesson, how many years will it be before I must learn it again? The coffee? Not bad if all you want is something to warm your hands.
We follow convoluted pathways to the nearest DLR station, Blackwall. On the platform I take my first photos for the day, squeezing in two shots before the camera claims “low battery” and packs it in. The battery was fully charged but has reached that age where Li-Ion batteries tire, the freezing temperature kept the electrons in their beds. The light rail train arrives and takes us to Tower Hill station and we change to a Central Line train to get to Barbican. To the Meat Market we go! But alas! The time is around 10:00 and we’re far too late, the providores of flesh are packed up and shipping out! Across the street a lone butcher shop of a more retail presentation remains open. All is not lost. The small side window of S.C. Crosby presents us with ducks, pigeons, rabbits, partridges, pheasants (two hanging from the wall still had their feathers attached) and huge tongues. We sadly bypass these delicacies to purchase 2kg of of boned, rolled and dressed venison shank. It’s not reindeer, but at least it is deer. Having had the battery in my pocket for a while to warm I squeeze in a few photos.
The core tasks of our quest complete, we trundle down Cowcross Street towards Farringdon tube station. Along the way we pass a total of three Starbucks spaced less than 100 meters apart. We righteously shun these and fetch merely-not-sickening espressos from Costa. I wonder if these chain stores have replaced independent cafés with more character, it is likely. The Costa double espresso serves an additional function of warming my camera battery a little (I put it under the cup, not in the coffee).
From Farringdon we catch a Metro-line train heading homewards. The train is in no hurry and after we’re out of the tunnels we watch foggy outer-London slowly pass by. At Harrow-on-the-Hill (hyphens official) we must alight, await and aboard. Another train, the final leg home. It is around 13:00, below zero and foggy outside.
We’re home and it’s time to stash goods and clean snapper. A freezer draw full of fishy goods, 2kg of deer in the fridge and four red snapper on ice in the sink. Filleting fish takes me back, a task I haven’t attempted for a long time. Luckily I seem to remember how it is done, with some hints along the way from Kathlene’s sushi book. Cleaning fish gives good motivation to clean your kitchen, once you’re done you’ll be finding errant scales in every corner (even though I used a covering bag while scaling, it is really a task best done outdoors). The snapper looks excellent but we’re uncertain of its sashimi potential. We play it safe and boring and don’t sashimi, it would not be ideal to start off a holiday with food poisoning. I wish I knew enough to be confident in obtaining fish for raw consumption. My promise to Kathlene: when we’re in Western Australia next year we’ll do some fishing. When we’ve just caught the buggers we’ll have all the confidence we need that the fish is fresh.
Four snapper fillets for dinner and four for the freezer. After a coffee trundle to Cinnamon Square and some general relaxation it was time for dinner. A simple affair: snapper pan fried in butter with capers and spring onions, served with garlic sautéed vegetables. Possibly one of the best dinners I have ever cooked, perfect food as simple as it should be.
Twenty hours since first awakening it is time for bed. It is dark, below zero and foggy outside.