Although my lifelong passion for eating fish and shellfish has equipped me with an incredible wealth of knowledge and the ability to wax lyrical, (albeit ad nauseam), on subjects across this fascinating spectrum, I have to confess, when it comes to their preparation, there are distinct areas in my skill set, that are sadly lacking and to the point of woefully inadequate.
As a boy, I was never happier than gutting and cleaning my catch. I found it incredibly satisfying, almost cathartic, as I stripped out the guts and sounds hurling them to the wheeling, expectant flocks of gulls that crowded round my dinghy on the Suffolk shoreline. Triumphantly, I would return home and present my mother with yet another glut of whiting, pout, codling and dabs to process and for me they didn’t appear again until I had the pleasure of consuming them.
It’s been my own fault. I suppose I should have paid more attention. In the ensuing years, I’ve always sort-of-got-by skinning, filleting and portioning but with no great skill and very little flair. Apart from dressing crabs and lobsters, at which I’ve always been reasonably adept, the techniques required for processing round and flatfish ready for the table have alluded me and it struck me recently that something must be done to redress this embarrassing state of affairs.
When recently, I had the pleasure of spending the day at Fishstock, the wonderful annual seafood celebration in Brixham, I witnessed with considerable awe and not a little jealousy, the deft and finely honed skills of a professional filleter at work and marvelled at the precision meted out, with such speed and accuracy, accounting for minimal waste and a beautifully crafted end product.
Having resolved to try harder and attempt to learn the correct methods used in this side of the industry, it was with great enthusiasm and slight trepidation that last week I made the now familiar journey to Billingsgate Market and their famous Seafood School for the “Gut Fillet & Shuck like a Fishmonger” knife skills course, in the hope that my efforts in fish preparation would result in more happy endings.
The day always begins with a tutored market tour, of which I’m proud to say I’m now a veteran of three. The wise and authoritative Chris Leftwich, provided the narrative before, but on this occasion the tour fell to the incredibly enthusiastic and passionate Robert Embery, whose knowledge combined with a wicked sense of humour made for a hugely entertaining hour as we discussed everything from the age of lobsters to ammonia levels in skate.
Having enjoyed a hearty Billingsgate breakfast of crispy bacon and herrings in oatmeal, it was time for our group of twelve would-be fishmongers to don aprons and enter the finely honed world of Adam Whittle.
Founded in 1998 by the Worshipful Company of Fishmongers, Billingsgate Seafood Training School was established as a charity with the overarching task of providing professional development training to those working in the seafood industry and ancillary sectors. Further still, it fulfills its charity obligation by promoting sustainably and responsibly caught seafood to young people, the tutoring staff often going into schools and hosting events where they demonstrate the dietary value, health benefits and importance of including fish in a 21st century diet.
Adam is the epitome of professionalism. Articulate, incredibly well-skilled and a fount of pescatorial knowledge he boasts a background steeped in the seafood industry and having, like me, grown up with the sea and shore as his playground, further cemented his wide-ranging knowledge with a career in fisheries consultancy.
Having introduced ourselves we hasten to our work stations where an array of tools of the trade have been assembled for us filleting knives, de-scaler, pin-boning pliers.
First up we shuck. Rock oysters and Scottish scallops the victims and Adam takes time to describe the process in detail whilst ably demonstrating the art. Knives plunder hinges and with a bit of well-directed effort the shells are opened to reveal their inner jewels. I adore both and quaff my oyster back in a trice, but having never shucked a live scallop before I’m fascinated by the process of trimming and cleaning, leaving the firm white flesh standing proud on the shell adorned by its coral in true native style.
Raw scallop meat, thinly sliced, for me, is up there with any seafood flavour sensation I’ve encountered and if I’m honest, right then, could have done with a couple more.
We move swiftly and seamlessly into round finned fish and even having observed with the keenest of eyes, the process involved in the all-in-one-piece, skinning of a fillet of prime cod, I still manage to only half get it right, my blade having not been laid flat enough to the block, resulting in two attempts from either end of the loin.
In between trout, gurnard, hake, bass and mackerel we clean our instruments and wipe offal and blood from the cutting board, the residues being sluiced into a middle channel, allowing us to address each new subject with a clean block.
I take huge pleasure from the masterclass in the cutting of the bass and the mackerel. The insertion of the knife at the right point, the care to remove the blood line, the forming of the flexible filleting knife round the ribcage, and the angle of exacting cuts required to remove the fillet with maximum yield and the pin-boning. Adam is only too happy to recap and his exaggerated motions in defining the process are mesmerizing, in both fishmonger and blockman style.
After each tutorial, we’re able to collect up our prized portions and garner them in ready labelled cool bags for transportation home and the end of the session. Alongside our own production Adam amasses a further collection of seafood spoils to be shared out amongst the group.
Following a break and a much-needed coffee, we return to the cutting room and are each presented with two good market-sized and brilliantly spotted plaice for our next filleting adventure. I have to confess that this is the defining moment for me. Perfect flatfish fillets, I have never achieved, but once Adam has pointed out the J bone and breaks down the action again into phases, I get the gist. I manage not only to get the fillets (relatively) cleanly off one fish, but both and trying not to look too smug, pause for a few snapshots on my, (by now slime-streaked and scaly) iPad.
We finish the class, with our host and tutor cleverly showing off how to pocket-fillet a plaice so it holds water and then suddenly our blocks turn ink-black as we gut, clean and prepare the most fantastic Cornish squid, peeling away the membranes and brushing the tiny chitinous discs from the suckers on the tenatacles.
Time marches on and a glance at my watch suggests that the session will shortly be coming to a close. Adam has one more trick to show us and on plucking a beautiful brown cock crab from the chiller, proceeds to effortlessly dress the whole thing, extracting the maximum of flaky white meat and combining the brown to produce a feast-in-a-shell, worthy of any fishmonger’s slab.
The session now complete and with the spoils of day shared, it’s with sincere and grateful thanks that I shake Adam’s hand and congratulate him on such a fascinating, informative and rewarding morning. Having bid farewell to my compatriot, aspiring fishmongers, I wend my way out of Docklands and back up to Suffolk, satisfied in the knowledge that I’ve learned and achieved more about fish preparation in a morning, than I’ve accumulated in years. It’s not surprising though as I’ve been in the company of an expert and really that’s the only way to learn – the right way.