Sunday, 4 January 2009

Gnawing on London bones

It was still dark and bitterly cold when we arrived in Canary Wharf two days before the New Year's eve celebrations. I had worked in Canary Wharf before for several long years, but have not been back in the area for over four years now. Lifting up my head to see the top of - until very recently - the tallest building in Europe, surrounded by gleaming beauty of otherworldly architecture, gave me the same sense of awe as some 10 years ago, when I arrived at newly opened Canary Wharf station for my job interview. I felt like I'd been miraculously transported to another country, somewhere very stylish, powerful and rich; somewhere like New York or Paris. It was difficult to imagine that only some 20 years ago the area of Canary Wharf (the site of the old West India Docks and Isle of Dogs) was an all-forgotten, derelict district of docks. What brought me here on this bitingly cold December morning, however, was something that would not make me a million before the age of 30, but would plunge me straight back into the years when the presence of the river was the raison d'etre for the activities in this area. Fish.

'We have a tradition that every 31 of December we go to...' - the phrase known to every Russian from the legendary 70s film on saunas, vodka and melodramatic soviet realities. Transported into the 21 century East London a few days before the New Year's eve, I realised this phrase should end with 'we go to market'. In fact, not just any old market, but the biggest and oldest fish market in the UK, located in Canary Wharf - the Billingsgate. The market has been in this area since the 16th century and is still bringing here everyone from a simple deli owner to celebrity chefs. Being mainly a wholesale market, it is also open to public; and at the end of December the market swells up with many Eastern Europeans coming down here to stock up for the all important New Year's eve dinner.

The market itself is unsurprisingly bright, all EU-approved white tiles and overcoats. There are nearly 100 traders here selling all possible types of fish in one big space. Apparently, about 60% of the fish here come from the UK seas, with 40% arriving from foreign waters. It may be that we arrived a bit too late for the proper trade (mere 7am instead of the expected 5am), but a lot of what we saw was entitled either Asian or Exotic. Natasha - my big fish loving friend (a big lover, not a big Natasha!:) - took a particular liking to a stall that had a lively crowd of the Chinese and Koreans around it. I am not able to list the fish they have on sale for the simple reason that the sellers themselves didn't know. After several attempts addressed to four people, we got a name of one fish (which was not the one on the left unfortunately, which I think should just be called a pointy sprat) - it was obviously a kind of place where people who knew came. We were not in the know, so we moved on.

Since better deals can be gotten by buying in bulk, we wanted to find a box of fish that is fairly versatile and inexpensive. Natasha laid her eye on a stall that was only selling sea bream in boxes for a tenner. It was almost the end of trading, so I was convinced we could bargain. We approached the stall holder, in our most pink-cheekily and eye-flatteringly, and asked to give us 6 pieces of fish for 10 quid, one more than was already in the box. The guy looked at us blankly and replied, how about 4 fish for £10. At first we thought he was joking, but soon realised that he was dead serious - he was not happy with us daring to bargain! piss off, we thought, and walked to the central part of the market where we could see another crowd of people.

I am far from being an expert in fish (my expertise starts and finishes with looking admiringly at the shiny fish eyes), but the fish we saw next was clearly of a higher rank: a pale white turbot, a bright red mullet, a fat and lustrous sea bass. Maybe I was also impressed with the quantities of fish on offer (limited) and the advice given by the seller (assertive, but friendly), which made me think immediately 'good stuff'. The charming stall holder with a reassuring American (don't ask why) accent told us about the difficulties in the sea over the last few days (the weather had been icy and windy), and explained why the fishermen may be reluctant to do deals (not much fish in winter generally). Natasha went on to question him about the fish with 'eggs' inside. The American didn't grasp what she was after at first, but eventually told us to come back in spring, when caviar is more likely to be found. The decadent Russian ways, eh? Natasha and I made a mental 'wyll by bahck'.

Having made another three circles around the market, and seeing how most stalls were already packing up, we settled on three bags of frozen seafood (for Natasha's famed paella), five individually sold sea basses and breams, and a bag of enormous raw prawns. I also bought three fresh cuttlefish from the mysterious Asian stall. I had never bought, let alone prepared, the cuttlefish, so was anticipating and slightly dreading the prospect of cleaning the fish to get rid of its ink. The de-inking operation would work well later, transforming the slimy things into cute and neat rings. But for now we needed breakfast.

The market has three cafs, proper East London joints with men having big mugs of PG tips with milk, scoffing economy Tesco toasts with mounts of baked beans, making loud, dirty, but innocent jokes. I loved the atmosphere the moment I walked in.

There were black and white pictures on the walls, big steaming kettles of water for drinks, a curious smell of baconfish (ie fried bacon and fried fish, smelled unanimously, eaten separately) and - something very rare and almost politically incorrect these days - a rumble of pure Cockney speak, with no additions of Eastern European voices. As you can imagine, Natasha and I were a hit.

We quickly made friends with several breakfasting fishermen, thanks to Natasha's long blond hair and me ordering a Kippers breakfast. One of our new friends, having fished out from Natasha that she was from St Petersbourg, proceeded to telling us that he had a neighbour from Tomsk, north of Russia, and that was the most important, and evidently the only, piece of information he had about Russia. Fair enough, we knew just as much about cockney London .

Back to my breakfast. Well, it was spectacularly awful. But those who think that I am a food snob (you know who you are!) will be glad to know that I loved every bit of my scarily bony fish, plasticy scrambled eggs, melting bread and sugary instant coffee. The atmosphere made the meal so right and memorable. I could really imagine myself some 50 years ago, having come back from the cold sea, all smelling of fish and ocean breeze, be ravenously hungry having got up at ungodly hour to earn the bacon (or fish?) for the family...

We came out of the market into the sunny winter morning. It was barely 9am, but the working day of the market and all its inhabitants was already over. Smelling unashamedly fishy, we went shopping into the fabulousness of Canary Wharf, which felt very decadent, almost revolutionary, remembering the years I had spend labouring away just a mile away from there. I then walked all the way to Limehouse,breathing in the sights and smells of nostalgic East London. It was a great way to celebrate the last few days of the year. I felt at one with the city, with my city, enjoying its newness and its oldness - and the exhilarating aroma of defrosting fish in my bag.

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