A short walk from London Bridge station, Borough Market has become arguably the capital’s premier foodie destination – and it’s a great place to buy fresh fish too. Ed Smith takes a tour.
Walk around Borough Market on any Wednesday through to Saturday and, among the cheese and ham stalls, butchers, grocers and hot food stands, you’ll see a clutch of fishmongers. On the face of it, there’s little to distinguish between them: each one displays a bounty of fresh fish laid on ice.
But look a little closer and an interesting picture emerges. Not only are they a showcase for the diversity of fish that swim in our waters, they also show how that variety differs from one place to another. Each of the fishmongers at Borough drive their day boat catches up to London from a distinct part of the country. They have their own story to tell and, often, different fish to show for it.
There are three fishmongers in the market, as well as a couple of specialist smokers and, of course, Richard Haward’s oysters, which we’ve written about a couple of times before. In the outdoor area known as Green Market, you’ll find Sussex Fish, which sells seafood caught between Newhaven and Shoreham in East Sussex. Another, called Shellseekers, fishes between Dartmouth and Start Point in Devon. While Furness Fish and Game, just opposite, drives much of their catch down from where it’s landed at Flookeburgh, in Cumbria. (Furness Fish and Game is also a big producer of Morecambe Bay potted shrimps, but that’s another story for another time.)
Their convergence at Borough is a reminder of the fact that we are an island nation – and that the sea surrounding us is an amazing resource. They also represent a covetable opportunity: the ability to go shopping in an inland city for fish that’s totally traceable, responsibly sourced and super-fresh. Given the hours spent at sea and the distance covered after the fish are landed, that’s pretty remarkable.
On a recent visit, I spoke with the owners of Sussex Fish and Shellseekers. It was really interesting to hear their views on their livelihood and on the best ways to shop for fish.
Darren Brown at Shellseekers started out 15 years ago as a hand-dived scallop specialist and one of the founding stalls at Borough. He has split his week (and life) between the West Country coast and London ever since.
He’s still as passionate about fishing as ever. He impressed on me how difficult a fisherman’s vocation is – and how he feels the quota system is letting fishermen down. He suggests that the only way to police and run a quota is to allow boats a fixed number of days at sea per year, with the freedom to keep everything caught in that time.
He’s passionate about markets and fishmongers too. The best way to shop, he reckons, is to interact with the fishmonger. Don’t come with too fixed an idea or a shopping list cast in stone: ask what’s good and plentiful and go from there.
Sussex Fish is always busy. It looks like a small stand from far back, but it’s absolutely packed with incredible looking fish. It’s run by Paul Day, who along with his business partner has a background in deep-sea trawler fishing, but now runs a couple of inshore catamarans in Sussex.
It’s amazing to see how many different fish come from a relatively small operation. When we chat, I see a massive conger eel winding its way through the stall, plus there’s squid, crab, plaice, skate, bass and cod – which is king at the moment, apparently – among many other things. It’s quite a haul.
Like Darren, Paul is keen for shoppers to speak to him and to ask him to get to work: scaling, gutting and filleting the fish, or just to explain what’s good, where it’s from and how to cook it. That’s what makes fish more approachable and seafood shopping a more enjoyable (and successful) experience for all parties.
Just spending a few moments with a couple of faces behind the displays at Borough Market left me edified. I wondered off with a whole gilt-head bream from Furness. I’ve been kicking myself for not taking some scallops from Darren and cod from Paul too. Next time.
Gilt-head bream with wild garlic mayonnaise
A whole round white fish – any bream or bass – is one of my favourite things to cook and eat. Just fill with a few aromatics, drop a splash of water or wine in the dish, cover with foil and bake for 20 minutes at 180C until the fish is steamed to perfection. Roasting with the foil off is not a bad option either. On this occasion, I ate it with a wild garlic mayonnaise and some boiled spring greens.
Wild garlic mayonnaise
2 egg yolks
1 teaspoon of Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon white wine vinegar
Pinch of sea salt
5/6 wild garlic leaves
200ml light rapeseed oil
100ml cold pressed virgin rapeseed oil
1 tablespoon of tepid water
Juice from half a lemon
Blitz the wild garlic leaves and rapeseed oil in a blender for 2 minutes. Pour into a measuring jug and give the blender a clean.
Put the egg yolks, mustard, vinegar and salt in the blender. Whizz for 30 seconds so that the yolks are light and thickened. Now with the blender on low, very slowly drizzle in the wild garlic oil. Just a trickle at first: don’t rush or your mayonnaise will split. Every so often, stop the process and push the emulsion down the sides of the blender.
When you’re halfway through the oil, loosen the mix by dribbling in the water instead of oil. Continue. Then about three quarters of the way through, do the same with the lemon juice.
This is best fresh, but will keep in a sealed container for two to three days.
Ed Smith is a London based cook and food writer. He left a perfectly good career as a City lawyer two years ago, retrained as a chef at Westminster Kingsway and, since then, has run pop-up restaurant events, worked in professional kitchens, on BBC2 cookery shows and as a private caterer. He writes for various publications and has a food blog called Rocket and Squash. Ed was shortlisted in the Best Online Food Writer and Best Online Restaurant Writer categories of the 2013 and 2014 Fortnum and Mason Food Awards.