Billingsgate Market: A Guide
"LEGS!" - that's Billingsgate Market speak for "Oi, move out the way!". Every so often as you're peering into a box of squirming crabs or trying to work out what breed a velvety spotted fish is - or even if you're zoning out momentarily from the 5am start, you'll be yelled at. The first rule of the market - watch out for the guys pulling around big boxes of seafood around you.
Visiting Billingsgate fish market is one of those things that you think you'll get round to at one point. Next thing you know, you've been in London for ten years and the closest you made it was that time someone suggested it for lolz at a Fabric after-party. But if you're a foodie or even just a Londonophile, it's a great way to experience a vital part of the city that's been ticking away in the background in several locations since 1699. It's the UK's biggest inland fish market, selling up to 35,000 tonnes of fish a year. It's also an amazingly cheap way to pick up some delicious seafood for a monster of a fish feast.
The early bird...
The the first thing you need to know if you're visiting is that it's an early, pre-dawn start. Trading down at the market (which is about a ten minute walk from Canary Wharf out East) starts at 4am and finishes officially at 9.30am, though many of the stalls close down around 8am. We made it there for 6.45am and most of the stalls were still trading, though it was beginning to wind down. So get a decent alarm ring-tone and a patient friend who doesn't mind hitting redial a few times as you lug your carcass out of bed, ruing the day you agreed to this. Don't worry, there will be no ruing once you've made it down there. Saturday is the busiest day, so we'd recommend going on a Thursday or Friday to beat the crowds (it's shut on Sunday and Monday). Also, kids under 12 aren't allowed.
If, like us, you're coming from Hackney, there's a direct bus in the shape of the 277 which pretty much drops you door to door. The only problem might be a return journey - unsurprisingly some of the drivers have got on to the fact this is fish-ville and might be a bit funny about you stepping on board brandishing a three-kilo river trout. If you're only picking up some small fishes, wrap them a few times in some plastic bags and stick them in a rucksack. Fish, what fish? Same goes for a taxi or Uber - think of other people's nostrils. The best option is to rope a friend in to drive, as there's a big carpark out the front that gives you two hours in the market for £2 fee.
This is a working fish market with up to 54 merchants that supply restaurants across the country - so it can get super busy and their trade comes first. So while holding up a fish pretending to snog it might garner you a few likes on Instagram, it's probably going to piss off the traders. At least buy the fish, first. They're not officially fans of cameras either, you'll need to fill in an application form if you want to take 'proper' pictures, but they don't mind the odd few snaps here and there. Just no David LaChapelle-eque photoshoots on a bed of squid, OK? Make sure the aisles are kept clear for people wheeling big trolleys of fish around - as mentioned, you'll be alerted to this when someone yells "LEGS!". Listen out for them, unless you're not really that bothered about keeping your limbs in tact.
See food, eat food
There's an incredible array of every type of fish going, but if you're not sure what something is, ask, as the guys don't mind explaining what things are. We saw red mullet, barracuda, trout, mackerel, salmon, whole squid, oysters, prawns, sea urchins, scallops, caviar...and that was only the first 30 seconds after entering. Have a good look around to work out exactly what you want, then which of that fish looks the freshest and work out what prices you're willing to pay.
Super market sweep
You can haggle to get a good deal and the traders will probably be more likely to drop their prices towards the end of trading - but you can't be sure of them still having the fish that you might have seen half an hour ago. We got some great deals on rock oysters (50p each) and the native oysters (£1.20 each). Scallops were a pound each and we picked up the best dressed crabs that were three for a fiver. A kilo of king prawns from the Philippines that cost £9 rounded off our haul. Bear in mind some produce won't be for sale unless it is in bulk. Oh, it's cash only, obviously.
You'll be in desperate need for a cup of brew now. Thank God for Piggy's, the little cafe at the corner entrance of the market. A proper old-school caff, we had the greatest breakfast in a long time - an incredible scallop and bacon roll for £3 and a big cup of builders for a quid. Or, a few stalls up there's kippers, toast and tea for a fiver. As you leave, the sun will be rising, you'll be stuffed with a killer breakfast and you'll be the proud owner of all the ingredients for one hell of a feast. Smug? Fuck yeah, you are. You got up in the middle of the night for this!
Billingsgate Market is open Tuesday - Saturday, 4am - 9.30am
Trafalgar Way, Poplar E14 5ST
For more details click here.