The treasured British high street fishmonger is a dying breed. This sad development is partly down to the dearth of public knowledge about the handling and preparation of seafoods. However, an experience at the Billingsgate Seafood Training School, London offered us an opportunity to bridge our own knowledge gap and a chance to challenge and overcome some of our own doubts about handling shellfish.

 

Fishing while the city sleeps

There is one place in London that wakes up while the city sleeps and falls into eerie silence as the daily rush hour commute begins. Tucked away near the glass and steel towers of London’s Canary Wharf, the historic Billingsgate Market is a beehive of activity long before suited and booted city executives grab their caffè macchiatos and settle behind their screens.

Billingsgate Market is the largest inland fish market in Britain. It moved from its original fourteenth century location near London Bridge to its current location on the Isle of Dogs in 1982. Every day, as the last traders clean up their stalls and the ice trucks make their way out of its premises, the frantic early morning trading is replaced by other activities such as the Billingsgate Seafood Training School (BSTS).

Set up in 2000 as a charity affiliated to Billingsgate Market, the school teaches different courses aimed at promoting the enjoyment of all types of seafood, teaching children about healthy diets and upskilling trainee chefs, fishmongers and members of the public.

Overcoming Doubts: A Shellfish Experience at Billingsgate

 

No shellfish experience

As a foodie couple, cooking together is one of our favourite things to do. We were therefore very excited when the BSTS invited us to join a Friday Evening Seafood class where we would learn the basics of preparing and cooking different species of shellfish.

Although we grew up continents apart, when we began dating, we realised we shared one thing in common, a mutual hesitation about shellfish. This hesitation stemmed from a lack of knowledge and confidence about how to properly prepare and cook shellfish including crustaceans, molluscs and cephalopods.

A cooking demonstration in St Malo, France earlier in the year had somewhat calmed our nerves about preparing lobster. However, we had a lot more to learn. It therefore felt right to spend a night out in London conquering our doubts and fears about shellfish with a promise of a feast at the end.

Billingsgate cooking class | via @dipyourtoesin

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Getting our hands dirty

The welcome flutes of Prosecco offered to us upon arrival by sous chef Carolina Manuel helped calm our nerves somewhat. After a safety and hygiene briefing, our hostess, Frances McKella, took charge of proceedings. This was going to be a hands-on experience and she encouraged everyone to get stuck in.

Addressing a room full of eager students, Frances introduced the list of fresh shellfish we would be handling. The target for the evening was to prepare a seafood platter consisting of: dressed brown crab, lobster and crayfish green leaf salad, scallop and chorizo and lemon pepper cuttlefish skewers.

Frances got to work with gusto, leading by example and demonstrating some excellent knife skills as she worked through the steps for cleaning and prepping each item of seafood. Her demos complete, she circled the room, answering questions and supervising each group at their workstations which were fully equipped with sinks, the latest, touch-enabled induction hubs and a full suite of kitchen utensils.

Cleaning and de-shelling the scallops was the easiest of the tasks. Gripping the symmetrical scallop shell firmly, with the join nestled in the base of the palm, a simple downward motion with a small knife separated the meat from the shell. With the inedible bits discarded, the delicate meat was ready for frying later.

The cuttlefish proved to be the trickiest task. Unlike the other sea animals we worked with that evening, the cuttlefish has an internal bone. To get to the meat, we had to carefully remove different layers while trying not to burst the (edible) ink sac, the feature which helps them evade predators.

Cutting cuttlefish a Billingsgate | via @dipyourtoesin

Overcoming Doubts: A Shellfish Experience at Billingsgate

As most of the cleaning was done by hand, we also had to be careful to avoid skewering ourselves with the cuttlefish’s sharp bits. At the end, we reflected that the amount of meat seemed disproportionate to the work we had put in. After a quick rinse, we cut it into 1 cm wide strips and set it aside with the scallops.

By the time we got to the crab (pre-cooked to speed up the process), we were feeling a lot more confident as we removed the gills and separated the brown and white meat from the shell. We were able to bring some individuality to the process of dressing the crab although adding a bit too much English mustard resulted in a raised eyebrow from Frances.

 

Friday evening shellfish feast

Preparation complete, we skewered and pan-fried the cuttlefish lightly in some olive oil, mixing in some lemon juice and black pepper. By frying with mild heat, we extracted the oil from some slices of chorizo and then pan-fried the scallops with some peppers. The lobster and crayfish were added to a green leaf salad and the presentation was completed with some soda bread.

Effort is always rewarded. Even more appealing is when the reward is a chance to relax and enjoy a feast of seafood and a glass of wine. As we toasted to a great Friday evening, we felt very confident about our new skills and looked forward with anticipation to our next visit to our local fishmongers (or pre-dawn Billingsgate Market).

 

Overcoming doubts

Blessed with some of the world’s finest restaurants, Londoners are spoiled with options for a night out. Attending a cooking class at Billingsgate Market was a different type of dinner date for us. It offered an opportunity to go behind the scenes and prepare our own seafood feast under expert guidance, making the dining experience very personal.

Apart from the obvious learning opportunities, we highly recommend courses at BSTS for anyone looking for a different type of team building activity.

Overcoming Doubts: A Shellfish Experience at Billingsgate

Overcoming Doubts: A Shellfish Experience at Billingsgate

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Useful details

To find out the list of courses available or book a Friday Evening Seafood session, visit the BSTS website or email admin@seafoodtraining.org. Class sizes range between 10 and 12 people.

Registration starts between 18:15 pm and 18:30 pm while classes run from 18:30 pm to 21:30 pm.

Getting there – The Seafood Training School is located at Billingsgate Market, Trafalgar Way, London E14 5ST. The nearest DLR station to Billingsgate is Blackwall. The market is also a 10 minute walk from Canary Wharf Station (DLR and Jubilee Line). Parking is available (a special permit is provided upon booking).

Rates for Friday Evening Seafood sessions begin from £89pp (as of October 2016). Call the booking office to find out about any discounts or promotional offers.

Co-Founders & Curators at HDYTI

Eulanda & Omo Osagiede are London-based freelance writers and award-winning social influencers who run the popular travel, food, and lifestyle blog HDYTI (Hey! Dip your toes in).