Earlier this week Becky embraced an early, and incredibly cold, start to the day to attend a seafood masterclass at Billingsgate Market. We were invited along to the event by Fish is the Dish as part of their nationwide campaign to get people eating at least two portions of fish a week. As I’m sure you can imagine this is an initiative very close to our heart, so we were more than happy to get involved.
For those Sunday Brunch fans out there we’re sure you can share the excitement of knowing the class was run by CJ Jackson the CEO of The Seafood School at Billingsgate. The day began with a tour of the market with CJ. Billingsgate is the largest inland seafood market in the UK and on a normal day there will be well over 100 types of fish on display. Between 4 am and 6 am, the market floor is a hub of activity with fishmongers trawling the floor, ice being tossed around to keep the fish fresh and a symphony of cockney accents shouting. CJ’s knowledge is astounding the fact that she knows almost every tradesman by name is one thing, but her advice for selecting fish is second to none.
Tips for buying fish at Billingsgate
Top tips from CJ, firstly know what you are coming to get at the market. There is a lot to choose from so have a basic idea. When looking for a fresh fish check for bright eyes, shiny scales and bright gills (yes this will mean taking a closer look). If the fish is already filleted make sure the flesh looks firm, if it seems that it is flaking apart then it’s likely it won’t be fresh.
Another great piece of advice is to come on a Tuesday. This is the first day of trading at the market and ensures that what you are getting is freshest possible. However, fresh fish isn’t everything here as CJ takes us over to the frozen fish. Frozen fish is a fantastic way to purchase fish. It might not seem as fancy, but this is still top quality produce.
CJ is clearly passionate about what she does and as we walk around the stalls she’s a walking encyclopaedia of knowledge. What’s more, this isn’t just theory, she’s a fantastic cook and loves working with new ingredients. Becky mentioned her intrigue as to cooking with various seaweed and within minutes CJ had picked up a bag to take back up to the kitchen. We discuss not just sustainability and different types of fish on the way around the market but also the need to get children interacting with seafood early on. CJ and Becky shared a nostalgic time talking about buying a pint of prawns in the pub or by the sea and the joy of shelling them yourself.
After our tour, we headed up to the Seafood School kitchens to warm-up with a big bowl of kedgeree. Needless to say, it was delicious. Becky particularly loved the mango salsa that accompanied it. After the kedgeree and a chat about our favourite recipes, it was time to start preparing the fish.
Under CJ’s watchful eye we skinned coley, filleted mackerel and gurnard as well as learning out to fillet flatfish. This was a brilliant experience and great way to feel more confident with preparing fish. Although this is not an activity for the faint-hearted, things can get a little gory at times, Becky loved getting stuck in. CJ doesn’t believe in waste and so all the other parts of the fish (head, skin and bones) were collected on to a tray ready to be used for stock. Mackerel was the only fish that wasn’t used in this because it’s little too oily.
Once the fish was prepared it was time to make the stock. It might seem a bit of a faff at first but the difference in taste between store bought stock cubes and fresh stock is huge. It’s also quite satisfying to take the time to prepare it. If you fancy giving it a try here’s a link to a similar recipe.
After we’d made the stock the group was split into pairs and each given a recipe. Becky and her partner, the lovely Zen from Happiness Wherever, were tasked with two recipes Merchants Fish Soup and Coley and Mussel Chowder. People are often scared of cooking mussels, however, in the UK because of the laws around shellfish, it is one of the safest places to eat mussels. Need another reason to try these at home? Rope-grown mussels are one of the most sustainable food sources. Also, they’re delicious. Be brave and you’re in for a treat. Other dishes created included a grilled mackerel salad and some beautiful squid.
As Gills Gals, our seafood knowledge is pretty good but we learnt so much during the masterclass. The most important take away from the day was how we all need to be cooking with fish more. It doesn’t need to be boring or scary and it certainly doesn’t need to be expensive. Canned fish, frozen fish and those less used like coley or whiting are great alternatives to popular salmon and tuna. Make sure your fish is MSC certified or if it’s frozen FSC, to ensure it comes from a sustainable source.
If you’re okay with early mornings a trip to Billingsgate is a must for food lovers and offers a huge selection perfect to help you reach your two dishes of fish per week.