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Inside the U.K's Biggest Fish Market

A crack-of-dawn trip to the infamous 'Billingsgate market' - one of the most unexpectedly profound things you'll do all year.

"So you're off to buy a fish?", said the bemused and amused taxi driver in a strong Nigerian accent. 'Yes' we smile-mumbled back, trying to mirror the energy and warmth he was somehow showing to us at 5am on dark rainy London morning in September.

We were indeed off to buy a fish, but it was a bit more than that too. Covid meant the underground wasn't running and it was far too wet to cycle so a warm cab ride was our only option and I was pretty glad of it. I love fish but a 5am start? Seriously?

Arriving at the U.K's biggest fish market is an unlikely experience. You enter into a grid of modernity. Street after street of giant skyscrapers built on reclaimed land that makes up London's 'new' financial district, Canary Wharf. You then round a corner and come across a simple low rise building with a bright yellow roof and freezer space for a casual 800 tonnes of fish. There's very little else here apart from looming office buildings emblazoned with the neon brand names of global finance.

The market was moved to the new financial district, Canary Wharf in the 1980s. There are now plans that it will move again, to the very outskirts of the capital.

The hustle and bustle of the market gets underway with a ring of the bell at 4am and is all but done by about 9.30am. The reason for being here was actually an 'experience day' I was kindly given as a birthday present last year. We were greeted by the amusing and softly spoken Stewart; a delightful man with a Newcastle accent who knew everything there was to know about fish. The aim of the morning was to learn about what the best and most sustainable options are, buy some fish, and then prepare it upstairs and get some recipe ideas for cooking it later that day. It's that 'prepare it' step that was to become the most memorable part of the day, whether we liked it or not.

So after chugging down an instant coffee in Stewart's office above the market we were primed and ready to go. Down on the ground, the sopping wet floors and brightly lit bustle of the market was a real hit to the senses. Surprisingly that didn't include my sense of smell though; fortunately this wasn't me coming down with Covid. Instead it's because the fish here are so fresh. With it being landed on the boat just hours earlier, there just hasn't been enough time for your typical fishy smell to start bothering your nostrils.

Down on the ground, the sopping wet floors and brightly lit bustle of the market was a real hit to the senses

By this point we were all suited up in white coats, as were most of the market traders. I was initially keen to buy a red snapper but Stewart deftly reminded me of the (now obvious) fact that it is mainly a tropical fish that would have been airfreighted to Britain. Tinged with disappointment, I quickly got over it and went hunting for the fresher and more sustainable options available. The snappers were far too big anyway, which was a good thing, as it showed they were not young juvenile fish. Removing such young specimens from the ocean is classic fishing no-no as the fish have not yet reached reproductive age which can easily lead to a decimation of the whole species population. That doesn't mean it doesn't go on though.

The market is already much quieter by 7am (left). Market traders attention-seek by displaying a fish hanging from the mouth of a giant Hake (right).

We roamed the market, eyeing up a shortlist of our potential favourites. One thing I was glad about was there was no haggling for those of us just buying a couple of fish for personal consumption. Such negotiations are reserved for restaurant suppliers arriving at 4am and buying en-masse. I quite like bargaining but only when I know what the hell I'm vaguely doing. Here, surrounded by dozens of fish species I didn't even know the names of, was not the place. The upside it that there's no real need to either. As a random member of the public, Billingsgate market seems insanely cheap when compared to supermarkets and fishmongers. So after half an hour of surveying the field and some friendly banter with the stall owners, we headed back upstairs armed with some mackerel, sea bass and a box of scallops. All for a fraction of the price you would pay elsewhere.

I quite like bargaining but only when I know what the hell I'm vaguely doing.

At what felt like lunchtime (it was still only 8am) it was now time to prepare our fish in one of the market kitchens. This is where things get both interesting and kind of gross. I had caught fish to eat once before but had never done any of the gutting or prep myself. Armed with a long, slim, upwards-curving filleting knife, I carefully opened up the belly of the fish to reveal a myriad of colourful organs and entrails and a set of crimson red, beautifully intricate gills. Whilst fish lack several of the organs that humans posses, the jumble of insides is still remarkably similar looking to things you might have seen on hospital dramas like Grey's Anatomy, just on a smaller scale. It makes you realise how similar life on earth is, yet how different it is too.

I came out of that brief contemplative trance with the slap of a wet fish. Not across my face you'll be disappointed to know; instead it was a member of our group whose seabass had slipped out of his hands onto the unforgiving surface of the kitchen's hose-down floors. It landed with such a percussive crash that it made me think how I hope I never have the misfortune of being slapped with a wet fish! There is annual event in Wales were fish-slapping is a thing but anyway, I digress.

I came out of that brief contemplative trance with the slap of a wet fish.

It was now time to set about the quite brutal procedure of snipping off the gills and slicing and pulling out the guts; discarding them in a pool of blood on the cold, clinical steel of the work surface. It can take quite a tug to get them all out and the whole thing made me both feel queasy and also a bit cruel for seemingly destroying what nature had provided, even if I was going to eat it.

I really didn't expect to feel so out-of-sorts with all this. I think it was because it is often so easy to dissociate eating fish from fact they are real, living creatures. Probably because the fishmonger does all the hard, messy work for you and you often see them as gleaming silvery-white sides of muscle, decorated with lemons and sprigs of herbs with not an entrail or a drop of blood in sight.

I'm glad I did feel uneasy with all the gutting and filleting. Aside from the fact it would be quite weird to actively enjoy the activity, it made me value fish for what it really is; a creature that has forgone it's life so that I can eat it, not just an off the shelf commodity that should be thoughtlessly consumed. I'll be the first to admit that it can so easily become just that, as we choose our supermarket delivery slot from the sedentary safety of our sofa.

Nevertheless, we ate and throughly enjoyed the fish that weekend. Baked mackerel with soy and honey dressing one day, sea bass the next and some pan fried scallops in-between. It was all completely delicious although I've rarely been so aware of what I was eating in my life.

Food for thought

In the modern global economy, it's so easy to feel disconnected from the food we eat. I arrogantly thought I was immune to this problem just because I had 'worked in the field of sustainable investment'. A few years ago I had gone to a 'responsible fisheries' conference in the City. It started at breakfast time and it was all croissants, orange juice and slick powerpoints delivered by some impressive people, ranging from from CEOs of national supermarket chains to leading experts in the field of Marine Biology. I became aware that the retailers were really starting to take their fish supply chain seriously and that big business, through consumer pressure, was starting to clean up its act. `Fish stocks in the North East Atlantic (closest to Britain) reached an all time low around the year 2000 but have made a remarkable recovery in the twenty years since, largely thanks to frameworks such as the EU's 'common fisheries policy.' 'Good' I thought, there's action being taken and an ever increasing raft of legislation that's making industrial fishing more sustainable by the day. There are reams of organisations and initiatives trying to make fishing more ecologically sound so why do I need to worry about this again?

It was all completely delicious although I've rarely been so conscious of what I was eating in my life.

What I didn't think about was my own connection (or lack thereof) to the food we eat. Progressive inter-governmental policy is all very well but it doesn't tackle the consumer demand side of the equation. In basic terms, humans need to eat less fish. Stepping into the shoes of a fishmonger for a day for the bloody job of gutting and preparing a box of fish made all the difference. I've been eating a lot less fish and meat since and really savouring it when I do. I'm almost thinking of making it a habit - if I buy fish, I'll try to get it from the market and gut it myself. The trouble with being conscious of the environment is that it often doesn't feel 'real' enough. We can watch nature documentaries on deforestation and species extinction and that can stay with us for a few weeks but then it's all too easy to forget, caught up in the details of our busy lives. Unless you live somewhere like the Amazon and can see the destruction happening around you, it's very hard to actually witness the damage first hand and act responsibly all of the time. It's not surprising when over half of us around the world now live in urban environments, seemingly disconnected from the oceans and the natural world at large.

However, with the simple act of gutting your own fish comes an effective and meaningful way to cut down our consumption and appreciate the significance of what we are eating. I just can't think of a better way than to be surrounded by the visceral, bloody reality of it all. That might sound both grim and gloomy but it really needn't be.


Video: The Bell Sounds at 4am for the start of market trading

Lawrence D'Silva


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