Dolly does Billingsgate

There are a few things I really hate about being middle-class. I hate that I can’t go to a house party without thanking the “host” for “having me”. I hate that I can’t help but notice when someone describes eating their tea with a serviette on the couch in the lounge. But middle-class trait I hate the most is making plans and never seeing them through.

I think I inherited it from my mother. She is incapable of going to a social event and not cornering someone to make elaborate plans. “TONY!” she’ll squawk at my dad flapping at him. “COME OVER HERE – JOAN AND HER HUSBAND HAVE INVITED US TO STAY ON THEIR HOUSEBOAT.” Numbers will be written on napkins, photos will be taken, hugs will be exchanged. If it’s not the houseboat, then they’re all going to try that new restaurant. If it’s not the restaurant, then they’re going to get in touch about a Safari trip. That new exhibition, that region in Tuscany. My mum, in the parallel universe of pretend plans, has traveled the world.

I understand why these things never get seen through, we have all been guilty of it. In the cold light of day, when the wine has drained from your system and the napkin discovered at the bottom of your bag, you wonder how you could have promised so much on such a whim. You cringe at your over-familiarity that the ease of the situation lent. You pray they feel the same and aren’t going to harass you with a follow-up call. I’ll quiz my mum the next morning on Joan and that houseboat “Oh well, I doubt it will happen,” she’ll say, then mutter something about everyone leading “busy lives”.

My boyfriend and I are guilty of a lot of this sort of planning. Between us, we’ve planned to travel through France, move to New York, raise peacocks, buy an allotment, start a band. The endless optimism of it all is lovely, but it is also rarely seen through. One day, we were talking about how we’d both always wanted to make sushi but had never got round to it.
“We should stay up all night and go to Billingsgate Market,” he said.
“Yeah,” I replied enthusiastically, knowing that we would get on a bus home at three and the plan of buying fish at dawn would fall into a pile of “stuff we were meant to do”.
“No seriously,” he said. “Let’s make sure we actually do it.”

And so we did.

Last weekend, we went to a party in Farringdon and, as planned, when the clock hit half four, we started our journey to Canary Wharf. After drunkenly taking orders for lobsters as we stumbled out of the door, we somehow navigated our way through two sets of night buses.

Olly making small-talk at the bus stop with an unsuspecting traveler

We got there for about 5.45 which was a good time – it begins at five, but it’s best to go when some stock has gone and they’re more willing to negotiate price.

Olly, elated on arrival

The market offers the freshest fish possible in London. Even in the wee small hours of the morning, it was absolutely heaving. Overwhelmed by all that was on offer, and probably still not totally compos mentis, we circled the market at least four times before we started to buy. It was all very exciting.

Olly, excited

Because we were going to host a sushi dinner party that very evening, we went for a mix of stuff that would be good for making lots of rolls and nigiri. We bought half a salmon (which was absolutely huge), three large dressed crabs, a big bag of squid, a big bag of prawns and a swordfish steak, all for just under £40. The price you pay for such a large amount of fresh fish really is quite astonishing.

Olly, triumphant with salmon

We ambled home on the tube, fish in tow, enjoying the clear morning air and the first lot of commuters. Whether they enjoyed us as much is a totally different matter. Olly began to feel rather tired at about half seven, but luckily a fountain was at hand in Vauxhall park.

Olly, freshening up

After a few hours kip, we were up again to try our hands at sushi for the first time. Aside from the fish we had pickled ginger, wasabi paste, sesame seeds, soy sauce, seaweed sheets, sushi rice (all bought from a specialist shop in Brixton) and a sushi mat which we got from Asda for 60 p.

We quickly realised that making sushi really isn’t as hard as everyone makes out. The key is to make the rice soft enough to mold, but not to overcook it into mush. For salmon rolls, we lay a seaweed sheet on the bamboo mat, covered in a layer of rice (a rubbery cake smoother/spatula is the best device) then placed a line of either salmon and avacado or salmon and cucumber down the middle. We rolled it tightly and sealed the seaweed with a drop of water, then cut the cylinder into slices. For California rolls, we did the same, but filled the rolls with red pepper, avacado and dressed crab mixed with lemon and mayonnaise. For inside out rolls, we lay the rice on the seaweed, flipped it over and lay the fillings on the seaweed. We then rolled the cylinder in sesame seeds.

For nigiri, we boiled and butterflied the prawns and sliced the salmon into thin chunks and lay them on rectangles of rice. The rice should be malleable enough to roll into shape with your hands. We thinly sliced the left over salmon and served it as sashimi.

We also made some chicken teriyake by marinating chicken thighs in fish sauce, sesame oil, honey, dark soy sauce, ginger and garlic and frying. We chopped the squid up into rings and fried with salt and pepper, lime, chilli and garlic. After some internet research and discovering that swordfish is rarely eaten raw, we decided to call it a drunken impulse buy and stick it in the freezer for a rainy day. This is what our sushi feast for 12 people looked like in the end:

If you’re on a night out – consider prolonging the evening and head to Billingsgate. We had a brilliant night/morning adventure, honed our sushi-making skills, and enjoyed a delicious meal. It’s the most fun I’ve had in ages.

Plus, it’s made me re-look at that long list of “bizarre things to do” I have made over the years. I might finally start seeing some of them through.

Billingsgate fish market is open from Tuesday to Saturday 5am – 8.30am The market is closed Sunday and Monday. For more information visit:

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3 Responses to Dolly does Billingsgate

  1. Pingback: This week’s food news | James Ramsden

  2. rachsmith says:

    I read this on June 27 and was utterly inspired. I had EVERY intention of going to Billingsgate and throwing a big old fish party myself.
    It is now October. I still haven’t been. I am well and truly middle class. Shame on me.

  3. katie says:

    Was a treat to read

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