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Thursday, 10 March 2011

Seafood Training at Billingsgate Fish Market

What better gift for an afishionado than a day learning about the salty wonders of London’s greatest market? As Christmas presents go, this was a good one.

We made our way to Billingsgate not so bright and fairly early one Saturday morning, to the Billingsgate Seafood Training School,  on the promise of learning about fish, cutting fish up, cooking fish and finally, taking fish home with us. It sounded promising.

Because it was a Saturday, and because of the comparatively late start (the market begins to wind down at about 7.30), there was no scope to explore the various stalls. Billingsgate is a wholesale market, and most of its business is in selling volume to trade, but some sellers will allow smaller purchases, so it’s well worth going along nice and early if you want some of the freshest fish you’re likely to find in London.

The course was divided into two. Our first session would be dedicated to learning about fish: how to spot the freshest, best quality, how to prepare them, how to tell if someone’s trying to rip you off, and what types of tools to use for the job. The second would be a cookery class.

I won’t go through everything we learnt, principally because I don’t want to spoil it for anyone that decides to attend. But after skinning coley fillets, gutting all kinds of fish, filleting a bream and pocketing a plaice (the results of pocketing are pictured below), I felt significantly wiser and far handier with a knife than I had before. And if I ever spot suspiciously white squid in a fishmongers, or dull-eyed mackerel, or lumpy, oddly over-slimed fish, I’ll know to avoid it. Understanding something about seasons for different types of fish will no doubt prove useful as well.


The great thing about this part of the course was that, for the most part, much of it was not completely new information. The techniques you learn are refinements of things you sort of know, or perhaps suspect, about how you should prepare fish. It’s not like, say, the butchery course at The Ginger Pig; seafood training teaches you things that you can use as a matter of routine, and with relative ease. Far from making the course less attractive, its practicality improves it. These are things you won’t forget how to do, but which will save you from spending an age hacking your fish to pieces in lieu of filleting it, or ruining it by freezing it the wrong way, or cutting through bones rather than around them.

After a generous couple of hours getting our hands all fishy, we moved to the cookery section of the course. This involved some hands-on preparation (with prawns, mussels and squid) and more tidbits of information about how to treat your fish. Mostly though, the second session was a demonstration, of recipes for a gorgeous laksa, lemon sole with beurre noisette, and various uses of the pocket in our plaice. Of the two halves, this was perhaps slightly less interesting, mainly because the recipes and demonstration were quite straightforward. We didn’t learn that much. That said, we did get to eat all the dishes. They were delicious, especially that lemon sole. 

Unfortunately, my photos mostly had to be taken at home, of the things we got to take away with us (coley, seabass, sea bream and plaice), simply because it’s quite difficult to operate a mobile-phone camera when your hands are covered in fish. We’ve been eating them since, in one form or another.

At £100 pounds for a course that lasts about 5 and a half hours, this is a decent deal, given you leave with about £30 of fish. But I think I’d try and do it midweek in the future; then, you get an earlier start and a tour of the market thrown in. CJ Jackson and her team are welcoming and patient teachers, and if you follow their instructions, you needn’t even smell that bad afterwards.


  1. We did the course, the weekday one that started with a tour of the market, then the scaling, gutting, filleting etc, the cooking and finally the eating.... we did it this time last year.

    Thought it was BRILLIANT!

  2. Yes, that was really the only thing I'd have liked to be different. The weekend course is great, but the market is such fun that it's a shame to miss it. Thanks for the comment.

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