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!
Denise Yeats is an events director, communications consultant, endurance athlete and avid adventurer.