Billingsgate has been a fish market since the 16th century and although it no longer occupies its original home by the river near Monument (the clue to its previous location is the name of Fish Street Hill), it remains the largest in the UK.
In 1982, it moved to a new 13-acre complex in Docklands. It may not be as historic, but it’s certainly big and there’s no denying that it’s impressive. Impressive enough to warrant a 4am start when Scout hitched a lift with Silla Bjerrum, co-founder of the Feng Sushi group of restaurants, leading member of the Fish2Fork Chefs Club and a vocal advocate of fresh, seasonal and sustainable seafood.
It’s dark, it’s early, it’s cold and we’re bleary-eyed to say the least, but Billingsgate Market is already a heaving hubbub of activity.
Trolleys whizz up and down the wetted aisles as chefs, caterers and retailers browse the vast selection. Market porters hastily ensure everything is kept topped up and that slow moving, barely-awake journalists don’t block the path.
While the majority of Billingsgate’s customers are keen to get in and out as quickly as possible, it’s a misconception that browsers aren’t welcome. A trip will necessitate an early rise, and if you plan to buy, it’ll need to be in bulk. However, if that seems a little daunting, Bjerrum passes on a top tip: “Go on Saturday mornings.” With Billingsgate closed on Sundays and Mondays, traders are keen to get rid of their stock – meaning they’ll sell in smaller quantities and at bargain rates.
Billingsgate is not only home to a huge array of produce but the incredible buzz and passion which exude from its surrounds makes it a must-visit for any London foodie.
Bjerrum points out that just as is the case with any big shopping centre or supermarket, Billingsgate offers a wide range of stock, designed to suit every pocket – and conscience.
The finest, most sustainable fish in the world sits alongside some less ethically sound produce. “The trick to buying well is to go armed with questions, and to build relationships with traders you can trust,” she says. “‘Where was it caught? What fishing method was used? When is it in season?’ These are all questions which a good trader should be able to answer, and ones which we should all ask, whether it’s in a fishmongers, on a market stall, at a supermarket counter or in Billingsgate.”
Open Tuesday to Saturday
Trafalgar Way, E14 5ST
Nearest tube: Canary Warf