As I drew the suggested card number 12 from the blue 'Food and Drink' category, I thought "ooh another night out in a nice restaurant or bar!" How wrong I was. This was all about preparing and cooking food and in this case, seafood. Two parts to this challenge I felt, the first one being to get up at 5am to get to Billingsgate Fish Market! Still feeling like I was on 'Spanish time' from my trip to Seville, as I got the tube at 5.30am, this felt more like a time to be coming home rather than going out. I have only ever seen this legendary market on TV programmes so had a sense of excitement about this part of the day alone. I was met by my teacher for the morning, Deanna Smith, and her neice and helper, Daisy. Deanna works at the Billingsgate Seafood School (who knew such a thing existed?) and also runs her own catering company, Platter and Slate.
Equipped in our white coats, Deanna showed me round the various stalls at the market. This was a real education. She showed me how the flesh of fish should look when it is fresh, very different from the cling film wrapped fillets we see in the supermarket. Also seeing scallops as they should look, actually quite creamy in colour, not white which means they are pumped full of water. First we went to choose some lobster. Now this is a crustacean I have never actually seen alive, but here they were, all wriggling around with the rubber-banded claws. Apparently the Scottish ones are the best (but of course!) Quickly purchased and bagged up, Daisy headed up to the freezer to well, you know, sedate them. We carried on looking at this Aladdin's Cave of seafood and saw some word and wonderful things - something which resembled a filing cabinet of eels with fresh water running through it; a gigantic tuna and of course the characters who work there themselves. I had a conversation about music with a sitar playing fishmonger who was interested to hear about my flamenco guitar exploits. After selecting some crabs (more wriggling crustaceans), prawns, langoustines and oysters - I was amazed to see how much fish actually costs. Oysters priced at 50p each, yet they are marked up in restaurants by about 300% for something which doesn't even need any preparation!
We then headed up to the teaching classroom,a fantastic space above the fish market and overlooking the docks near Canary Wharf. In amongst the towering finance building, here Daisy pointed out the School mascot, Sammy the Seal! I thought this was a wind up but no,there he was bobbing around waiting for some leftover fish and obviously keeping this location secret from his friends He wasnt the only one to be treated to breakfast,as at now approaching 8am I was offered kippers and toast - fantastic.
And so it was off to work. The crabs had also been put into a dozy state in a basin of water and so they were first into the boiling water. This was all done very quickly as Deanna confessed that no matter how many times she did it she still felt sorry for our little 8 legged friends. The same fate awaited the lobsters who were taken out of their dormant environment in the freezer and into the pan. It felt only right that i did one too...and my face says it all! Whilst they cooked we moved onto the oysters. Just a case of popping these open. That easy? Not at all,these are stubborn little suckers and took a lot of persuasion and brute force with an oysyer knife. Apparently the 'oyster opening record' stands at about 30 oysters in 3 minutes... Impressive given it took me about that time to open one!
It seemed only right to sample one...just to add to my fish intake of the morning. However, something i hadnt really thought about when eating them this fresh is that they are still alive. Best to give it a quick bite first Daisy advised..in case it wriggles back up! Once the crabs were ready Deanna demonstrated how to extract the meat piece by piece and then how easy it was to present it back into its shell. It was hard to believe this little fella had been running around just 2 hours earlier. Once I had mastered the crab prep I felt ready for the lobster, and again another determined facial expression from me as I attack the shell with a knife. And how the end result was worth it, check out this platter! Deanna explained that she specialises in producing these platters as part of her 'Platter and Slate' business. The best part? I feasted on crab, lobster and prawns for 2 days, pure decadence!
I feel I am slightly pushing the boundary of ‘a random challenge’ for this week’s Secret Life adventure. Although it wasn’t dictated by a colour and number, it was arranged by a friend without my knowledge….does that count? This one actually feels like a real treat. It was booked by my good friend Tracey, knowing that it would happen just after I came back from my annual flamenco guitar adventure to Seville, and would be pining for a taste of Andalucia.
A sherry tasting evening! This was indeed well timed as I had arrived back from Seville just 24 hours before, after a week of watching some of the most amazing flamenco. With days consisting of playing guitar, grazing on tapas and drinking Rioja in 35deg heat, I was struggling with the now wintery feel of London. Cue Drakes Tabanco, one of my favourite tapas bar tucked away in Fitzrovia - with one of the most authentic Spanish vibes that I have come across in London.
For this evening the owners had invited Jan Pettersen, the Director of the Bodegas Rey Fernando de Castilla in the beautiful city of Jerez. As Jan introduced himself we both did a double take as this was a bodega that Tracey and I had tried to visit when we were in Jerez last year but it was sadly closed and so we ended up on a tiny ‘Tio Pepe Train’. But that is another story….
This particular bodega is one of the finest in Andalucia. Their collection of sherries is made up of the finest wines from the area. Ranging from the pale, light and finos to their unique Antique sherries that have won the highest national and international distinctions. Were we in for a treat! Jan was a really engaging speaker, talking passionately about his favourite subject, yet making it really accessible. Tracing the origins of sherry as the ultimate Spanish drink with food, through to it becoming very unfashionable in the UK, unless you were a woman of a certain age. This truly is a very misunderstood drink. We were first treated to the Fino en Rama especial paired with a lovely ceviche of sea bream, almonds, cumin seed and peach. As we ‘oohed’ and ‘aaahed’ our way through this first pairing, Jan came around and spoke individually to everyone. Telling him our excitement at tasting his finest sherries in London, after failing to visit the bodega in Jerez, we secured an invitation to call on him when we were next in Jerez. I am looking up those flights as we speak…..
I won’t talk you through the whole menu, but instead show you it below in all of its wonder. I am hard pushed to pick out a favourite. A highlight had to be the braised Iberico pig cheeks though, along with the lovely Olorosso Viejo. This dish is one that I always look for on a Spanish menu and Drakes did it to perfection. That, coupled with Jan’s poetic description of drinking a warming Olorosso in front of his fire in the winter in Andalucia and I was enthralled.Although I would normally veer away from a sweet sherry, even I was totally won over by the Pedro Ximinez Extra Viejo and it’s lovely raisiny taste, coupled with blue cheese and oat cookies, yum.
So it might not have been a night out in my beloved Sevilla, but Drakes, you did us proud. We even left with a small bottle of the Fino en Rama especial, signed by the main man himself. Salud!
Well if this didn’t strike you as much of a ‘challenge’ in terms of the Secret Life, then this week’s one will get us firmly back on track as I head off to bed in preparation for a 5am start for my next adventure….
And so to the unexpected second part of this sewing challenge. Having spent a few days investigating fabrics for my soon to be made dress, I couldn't help but be drawn to my favourite colour red and so bought this simple cotton. Off to see Claire-Louise then to see what the next stage was. She explained how the nap of the fabric ran, and how it was important to work in the right way around this, making me glad that I hadn't made life more difficult for myself by buying the tartan which I seemed to gravitate towards in a patriotic fashion. This was all about transferring our pattern onto the fabric, including all of the dart and other markings. I felt quite the professional using tailors chalk, ah it's the simple things!
Once we had transferred the markings and pins to the fabric, and cut it out, it was finally over to the sewing machine. I felt rather apprehensive to say the least that after all this work, that I would mess it all up at the sewing stage. I had soon stitched the front and back sections together though - it was so satisfying to see it coming together so quickly. I was then taught some more key sewing terms - "basting" (apparently nothing to do with turkeys) and "easing" as Claire-Louise demonstrated this technique as we attached the collar to the dress. This was a tricky element and I could have left it off, but no, if a challenge is to be had... As we worked, Claire-Louise told me about some of her work that week, doing wardrobe at 'Good Morning', which was a fascinating insight. My next education was how to use an overlocker - and what a machine that is, with a blade and everything, watch those fingers. We did a final fitting before the zip was fitted (a slightly comedic scenario as I tried to wriggle my way into an inside out dress covered in pins, got myself stuck and had to shout for help) and it was great to see how a dress should really fit when it is not mass produced. The final stages were attaching the facings (stitching round a curve and more 'easing') and then the knack of attaching a concealed zip. I have to say the satisfaction of seeing that fit in so snugly was awesome! Again, all along the way I noticed how it is all about the details that make these personalised pieces what they are and how corners are constantly cut in ready to wear high street fashion.
And of course the moment you have all been waiting for.....ta-dah!! Thanks so much Claire-Louise (and I promise to give it a good iron, honest)
Denise Yeats is an events director, communications consultant, endurance athlete and avid adventurer.