The crack of dawn found me in a cab speeding through London’s empty streets towards Billingsgate Fish Market. I had booked a spot at Billingsgate Seafood Training School for a full day of fish-mongering lessons: gutting, skinning, scaling, filleting and pin-boning.
Bleary-eyed, I feigned interest in the Indian cabbie’s babbling, while deeply regretting my wine indulgence the evening prior. Stepping out of the cab at first light, I was hit with the overwhelming aroma of fish. Steadying myself and cursing my love for old Barolo, I found the school’s headquarters and my assembled classmates on the second floor of the bustling market. We were given white lab coats and herded onto the market floor, slick with water and fish parts. Men called out orders, packed and iced fish, and traded bawdy jokes. I imagined that it hadn’t changed much in its 300 years history; in 1699, an Act of Parliament was passed making it “a free and open market for all sorts of fish whatsoever”. The Head of School, an accomplished woman who knew her fish, led the market tour. She had clearly earned the respect of the fishmongers and was greeted warmly by the burly men, many of whom had worked at the market all their lives and were very at home with the day’s catch.
We groped grouper and talked crustacean. Lessons in locals versus exotics and farmed versus fresh were shouted above the din as pallets full of fish whizzed by our feet. We inspected clams from Northern Europe, the gills of mackerel from Denmark, and an enormous iron chest of drawers housing hundreds of slithering, slimy eels.
Cold and wet, we trudged upstairs for a quick breakfast of smoked salmon and eggs before embarking on the day’s lessons. We were each given trays of fish and shown how to skin lemon sole and filet the dreadfully ugly gurnard. We scaled rainbow trout, gutted turbot, and pin-boned sea bream. We made fish stock laden with Pernod and baked fish fillets en papilotte with herbs. As we worked, the sound of knives being sharpened mingled with dissertations on sustainability. At day’s end, we sat together and feasted on our handiwork.
I was overwhelmed with information, still slightly nauseous, and my hands and clothes smelled of fish. I learned to always check the eyes of fish when buying and for doneness when cooking, and to never wash one’s hands with hot water after preparing fish, as the pores open and the scent remains.
I bought two lemons before returning to the hotel and scrubbed my hands and arms with the citrus. I tossed my stanky clothes deep into the back of the closet, poured myself an Amaro from the bottle on the dresser, and slept deeply, dreaming of the ocean and all of its edible inhabitants.