“I have to get up at WHAT time?!?!”
“Because the course starts at 6.30 with registration at 6.15”
And so, we witness a time of day we’ve not seen for quite a while, especially since we’ve been on our extended holiday sabbatical.
But we have good reason: We’re attending Billingsgate Seafood Training School’s “Catch of the day 1” course covering fish preparation and cookery.
Synopsis of the day (photos below)
- We arrive for 6.15, easily find parking outside and gather in one of the school’s cookery rooms, which look down onto the market floor.
- Some attendees are late (grrr!) so the introduction (to how the market works) and market tour start a bit late. We’re split into small groups, ours is taken round by Adam Whittle, deputy director of the school.
- The tour lasts about an hour and 15 minutes and Adam shows us lots of different fish, what to look out for when selecting fish (how to tell if they’re fresh) and lots of interesting information. We also have the chance to buy some fish but, as we’ll be taking home quite a bit from the course, I just pick up a couple of small bags of frozen whitebait for the freezer.
- After the tour, at about 8 am, our group of about 14 enter our cookery classroom where we’re served a freshly cooked breakfast of smoked salmon and scrambled egg on a toasted muffin.
- Shortly afterwards, our tutor Eithne Neame introduces herself, and our lessons begin. We go next door to the cool room where Eithne shows us the fish we’ll be working with during the day.
- Once we’ve each taken our stations, donned aprons, had a brief chat about knife safety and washed our hands we begin, at around 8.30 am.
- The format for each fish/ preparation method is the same – first we gather around Eithne‘s station where she slowly, methodically and clearly demonstrates and talks us through the process, sometimes more than once for the more complex lessons. Then we each collect our own fresh fish and have a go ourselves.
- I was really nervous about whether or not I’d be able to master the techniques – we learn to scale, gut, bone, fillet and more for a variety of different fish including coley, gurnard, mackerel, sea bream, plaice plus mussels and king prawns as well – but I find they come very easily and am absolutely thrilled with how quickly and easily I finish each lesson. Pete struggles a little, but does manage too.
- When we’re done, the class assistants bring out our bags, each one has our name on it, and we wrap our prepared fish and pop it into our bag, before it’s taken back into the cool storage. We’ll be taking most of our fish home. The assistants have prepped the ingredients for us to marinade the mackerel and stuff the half-filleted plaice so once we’ve prepared the fish, we apply the marinade/ stuffing and wrap the fish in foil before adding to our bags.
- We’ve been given a book with the recipes, so we’ll be able to recreate them easily at home.
- Between the lessons, we pause to put on a pan of fish stock between each two students. Into it go the skins of our coley fillets, the heads and shells of the prawns and the head and skin of the gurnard as well as onion, garlic, carrots etc. prepped again by the assistants. In order that we are able to focus our time on the fish preparation lessons, they also strain the stock when it’s ready and prepare the ingredients we then combine with the stock in order to make our bouillabaisse
- Oh and we do have a welcome coffee and biscuit break late morning.
- Eventually we’re done.
- Most of our prepared fish is going home with us but the prawns, the mussels and a little of the coley fillet are destined for the bouillabaisse and we go ahead and pop them into the soup base to cook. In the meantime, the fish Eithne used to demonstrate each lesson have been cooked by the assistants and are served, buffet style, for us to enjoy with our bouillabaisse for lunch. We’re all starving by this point, about 1.30 pm.
- Our tutor Eithne says goodbye and quickly rushes off as we sit and eat lunch at our leisure while the assistants do the washing up.
- We’re given coolbag carrier bags in which to take our fish home though as our tutor rushed away, we’re not given the opportunity to buy knives like those we used during class (with just the right amount of flexibilty in the blades to make the techniques easy) or the The Billingsgate Market Cookbook, which we examined during the morning, and which contains handy reference pages reminding us on the techniques we used to gut and fillet the various types of fish.
So what did we think?
We both thought the course was excellent. The lessons on fish preparation were far more comprehensive and easy-to-follow than we expected and we came away feeling more confident about them than we’d imagined possible after just one day’s training. I really liked the way our tutor demonstrated and explained the various skills in a way that made them seem so straightforward.
The cooking element of the course is fairly minimal, as the assistants do practically all of the ingredients preparation and our contribution is slathering the pre-mixed marinades onto our fish, placing the pre-measured stuffing ingredients into our fish and adding a few ingredients to our stock and soup and stirring now and again. This balance does makes sense, as you really do need the time given to the fish preparation side. But I’d like just a little more time spent on the cooking, especially things like advice on how to tell when fish is cooked sufficiently, without being overcooked, how to best cook fish fillets in a pan and so on. Some of this could have been discussed in a question and answer session at the end, but we didn’t have any time for this before the tutor left.
A smaller class size would be strongly preferable. With 14 in the room, the tutor seemed not to notice that there were a couple of students (Pete being one of them) who were always the last to finish the practical sessions at the end of each lesson and that they really struggled to do so before she was calling us to the demonstration for the next one. Although she did walk around during the practicals, she very rarely made it to our station and never to Pete, who was stationed in a corner. Better would have been to make a mental note of who were usually the last to finish, and go and visit their stations earlier during the practicals, to check whether they needed extra guidance. For me, this is key to ensure that all class members get the best from the course and keep up with the pace required to cover all the material in the allotted time.
The course isn’t cheap but, from what I understand, those of us who attend the paid classes such as this one, provide the school with the means to provide training for young people, free of charge. The school also teaches and provides certification to those working in the industry, such as fishmongers and environmental health officers.
Catch of the day 1 costs £185 per person. You can find out more, and book courses, on the school”s website.
Thanks to my ma and pa for this very marvellous Christmas present!
The The Billingsgate Market Cookbook is currently available from Amazon for just £11.23.
Photos from the day