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Finding peace while surrounded by 9 million people.
A trip to a fish market, a weekend on the pans and a meal with the crew is a retreat from the daily grind that I can’t live without. Throw in a fridge full of fresh seafood at wholesale prices and I’ll be eating like a king for the next two weeks.
London is one excruciatingly expensive city to live in. Nine million locals call London home, with a further million flocking in to the city centre during business hours to keep the global machine cogs humming, it can be equally overwhelming as it can be inspiring. 240 years ago, the great English ink slinger, Samuel Johnson famously said; ‘when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.’ This quote is what I tell people who question how I could live in a mega-city like London. It’s relentless but amazing. On the weekend I like to escape and I find this escape in my kitchen. A weekend spent tinkering away over the stove and sharing a meal together with friends somehow seems to have therapeutic benefits for my soul.

But it’s not just being in the kitchen, cooking up my favourite recipes, that brings me balance, it’s as much about the ingredients I use. Great meals start with the best ingredients. Simple. While the easy trappings of the local supermarkets can be hard to avoid, London has some pretty epic produce markets if you are prepared to make an effort to get there. Smithfield Market in Farringdon, where they’ve been selling pounds of flesh for over 800 years, Borough Market just down the road is a couple of hundred years older still (both of which I’ll be visiting and posting about in the coming weeks) and Billingsgate Fish Market, at one point in the nineteenth century, the world’s largest fish market. With tradition like this, you’re clearly doing something right. This morning at 6am I made the trip to Billingsgate armed with garbage bags and a wad of notes. If you are going to go, make it count and stock up.
Billingsgate market was originally on the banks of the Thames, but in the 1980’s was moved a few miles further east to the Isle of Dogs where it now sits under the ominous shadow of the towering buildings of Canary Wharf, home to headquarters of some of the world’s biggest financial institutions. A surreal contrast of tradition and progress with both serviced by the driverless ‘DLR’ mono-rail train line. 

Like all good markets, Billingsgate operates when most of us are sleeping, or partying. 2am – 9am, but most of the traders have packed up an hour before this, so if you want a slice of the bounty, set that alarm, or just push through from the night before and get there when it opens – take it from me though, Billingsgate with a raging hangover is not for the weak stomached.

Fish at Billingsgate, like most fish markets, can be brought descaled and cleaned, but where’s the fun in that? Sold whole and uncleaned, fish is cheaper still and it means I am in for some fun once I get home. When you buy bulk, it’s all about portion control; there is no point simply throwing it all in the freezer as soon as you get back. You’ll need to clean and fillet all of your fish and break down into individual meal-sized portions ready to be defrosted and cooked up as and when you need it. Personally, I like to portion up my catch into dinners for two; there aint many people on the planet that don’t like to have dinner cooked for them so you have a perfect excuse to treat the one you love. Better still, put the word out to the crew and gather the mates for an almighty cook up and let the good times roll. Just be sure they bring plenty of beers.

This is what fifty quid gets you at Billingsgate; 10 fillet portions from the salmon, six 500g portions of tiger prawns, 4 whole seabass and a 1kg whole turbot. Enough for about 30 meals. Plenty. 

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