Thursday, 15 May 2008

Fishy Business

The year we spent in Sydney is beginning to seem like a distant memory now. I often pine for its amazing views, friendly people and wonderful food culture. One of the places I miss the most is the fishmarket in Pyrmont which was just a short drive from our place in Paddington. I'd jump in the car on a Saturday morning, pop down the roof, and drive through the city with the wind in my hair and crustacea on my mind. I'd park up overlooking the boats in Blackwattle Bay and make my way around all the merchants stopping to buy oysters here, prawns there, and barramundi straight out of the water. The oysters would be freshly shucked, so I used to have to stop myself from getting through a dozen before I left the car park. Inevitably I'd fail, and have to go back for more.

I thought I'd seen the most amazing fishmarket ever until we went to Tokyo and visited the Tsukiji market which is the largest wholesale fishmarket in the world. Unlike the Sydney market, it's not exactly geared for tourists or non-trade buyers but once you find your way into the vast interior, you are free to lose yourself in this pescatorial metropolis, a city within a city.

Porters hare round its narrow alleyways on mini forklift trucks laden with polystyrene crates of exotic sea creatures. Giant tuna lie like corpses on mortuary slabs ready to be carved up and sold on. Weighing about 2500kg each, that's a hell of a lot of sashimi and a fair wedge of yen too. Boxes are stacked high, harshly lit by the penumbra of the bulbs strung across each trader's stall, the only light in the early morning gloom. Some contain identifiable objects like sea urchins and crabs. Others are filled with marine creatures we have never encountered before. In a scene reminiscent of a porn film casting, grotesquely swollen clams lie side by side in their tumescent glory. Oysters are the size of your hand. It seems everything in the world's biggest fishmarket is gigantic, apart form the Japanese workers themselves.

Is that a clam in your pocket or are you just pleased to see me?

It may be early morning, but we're here for what is probably the freshest sushi in the world. Around the edge of the market little restaurants huddle together away from all the action. "Irishai-masai!" shout the master sushi chefs from behind the counter as they welcome you into the restaurant. With over 10 years training, these guys have some seriously good knife skills. Making sense of the menu is pointless and the vast array of fish on offer is mindblowing. You just have to go for it and enjoy the surprise. YoSushi! this is not.

If you are ever in Tokyo, a trip to Tsukiji is an absolute must.

One of the best things about visiting the coastal towns of France, Spain and Italy is the availability of fresh fish in local markets. While my excitement reaches combustible levels, the locals don't bat an eyelid at the bounty on display and to them it's just part of their daily shopping. In Cadiz, it was amazing to see how many fishmongers were competing for business in the central market, but somehow they all survive side by side, selling the same range of fish.

It's taken me 12 years to make it to London's famous fishmarket at Billingsgate but last weekend I managed to get up early enough to go in search of some whiting for lunch. Driving through London in the early hours is an absolute pleasure and I made it to Canary Wharf in about 15 minutes. When I arrived at 7am, the carpark was absolutely heaving with activity and finding a parking space was tricky. Everywhere, people were lugging bin bags of fish back to their cars or vans. Billingsgate is clearly a big draw for the African and Chinese communities and for a moment I forgot I was in London. Inside, the trading room is surprisingly small but nonetheless a fascinating sight to see. It doesn't have the warmth of Sydney or the scale of Tokyo but it has character and energy and makes my heart beat faster with the adrenaline and excitement of a new discovery. Price wise I have no idea what to expect and a quick tour of the room tells me there are amazing bargains to be had. Boxes of sea bass for a tenner, wild turbot at £9 a kilo. Borough Market - shame on you! Unfortunately there's no whiting on the market so I find some hake instead. A trader offers me a box of eight for twenty pounds which I reckon would feed nearly 30 people! I'm only feeding six so in the end I just buy one large fish for £12 (£5.50 a kilo) and manage to get eight portions out of it. Roasted in the oven with a herb crust the hake is beautifully moist with a wonderful texture, more delicate than cod but meatier than a bass. It's a discovery in itself and certainly something I'll go for again.

And Billingsgate? Well I was surprised that the quality of fish available at 7am on a Saturday morning was still so good and it was definitely worth the early start to get there on time. I will be back.


Lizzie said...

Tokyo is my ultimate destination - I'd like to take a few weeks off and just travel through Japan... one day perhaps when I win the lottery! Great post, and the hake looks fabulous - what kind of herbs did you pair with it?

Anonymous said...

Nice plate dude! ;o)

Pete said...

Lizzie, I used parsley and lots of lemon zest in the crust and tarragon in the crushed new potatoes. I love tarragon, it's my favorite herb I think. Japan is an amazing place and definitely worth saving up for.

A, yes the plate is pretty nice, great for setting off fish and white sauces. I can source you one at a very good price ;-)

Helen said...

I've never managed to make it there either, although I've only been in London for 2 years so I've got another 10 before I'm as slack as you! I can't believe those prices, shame on Borough Market indeed. A box of seabass for a tenner?!