Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Aylesbury Fisheries ~ the day before dawn...

The plans had been laid many months before, but Saturday 23rd May
2015 the day had finally arrived. +Diane Richardson and I were off to Billingsgate Fish Market with Joe Stokes of +Aylesbury Fisheries to record the story of what happens before most of us get out of bed!

The day started with an early morning alarm clock at 1:15am. A quick cup of Tea and then off to collect Diane and then to the Market for the rendezvous with Joe at 2am. Joe leaves for Billingsgate market at this time each day, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

The roads were quiet except for the taxis and clubbers just hitting the street. Central London looked like a busy night in Watford with the local food takeout shops doing a roaring trade. As we approached Billingsgate Joe drove into the Traders car park, Diane and I hit the Visitors car park which was very empty. £2.00 for 2 hours would be enough. We arrived at 2:50am. Visitors are usually allowed to enter the market at 4am, but there didn’t appear to be any real controls around
this. We did obtain permission to take pictures, which was why we were allowed in early and why when accosted by security they knew us by name!

First thoughts when we entered the main trading floor (which was very wet and made my experience with slick new shoes a little precarious) was that it wasn’t as big as I’d or Diane imagined it. I’d say it wasn’t much bigger than the old Watford Market. Forty or so traders with every conceivable harvest from the sea imaginable, porters busy hauling polystyrene boxes on small hand operated forklifts out to the loading areas. There was an overpowering sea smell as you would expect here, not that fishy smell of fish off the ice too long… but of the sea. Not unpleasant but 2 hours was going to prove long enough, I suppose the traders are used to it… One of the traders told us that the Paris and Japanese fish markets are huge in comparison to Billingsgate. One hall in the Japanese market is the same size as the entire Billingsgate market and just only for Tuna! I guess it would take days to get around that Market.

I finally caught up with Joe at about 3:10am only to find out he’d just about done all his buying. Joe has about 8 traders he regularly deals with, phones up the night before to find out what is coming in, places his orders for the local restaurant clients and then whatever he needs for the Market stall. Joe stays at the market till about 4:20am and then heads back to Watford.

Many of the local porters and Tradesman that Joe buys from have been working Billingsgate Market since it was in its old location. It moved to where it is now some 30 years ago. The old market used to be Billingsgate (Wholesale) Fish Market and business was confined to those people in the trade. Today, anyone can go along and buy fish, but buyer beware… Joe has seen people pay more for fish at Billingsgate than he sells it for on his stall at Watford Market.

Nevertheless people flock there looking for a bargain and yes you can buy fish at low cost… but there is a difference in quality. Joe only buys from those that know what he expects… if the fish isn’t the right quality then they won’t offer it to Joe. These relationships have been built over decades as Joe has been in the Fish market for 30+ years himself.

It is fascinating talking to the characters at the market, they all have a story or 10 to tell. Bob who Joe buys smoked products from and oily fish used to be a good boxer… there are a million other stories like this… and you get a sense of stepping into a bit of real London history brought to life at this moment. There is a richness of community and belonging that both Diane and I are privileged to have been able to witness, if only for a short while. I just wonder though with greed and the new ‘make a fast buck’ traders moving onto the Billingsgate scene how long this will continue… I hope that it will survive.

I have never seen so much fish for so long, how Diane remained focussed to take another fishy picture for almost two hours I’ll never know but Diane took a haul of over 200 pictures, some of which are here in this post, but the rest can be viewed here. Before leaving a very
busy Billingsgate Market filling up with the public, we grabbed a quick coffee / Tea (bacon roll for me) in the Cafe which is steeped in the history of the market (pictures adorning the walls). We left the main hall at 4:45am with Diane still snapping away, Joe had left ½ hour earlier, so now it was time to head back and see what happens back at the Watford Market end…

Back at Watford Market, 5:30am and the Fruit and Veg stall (Gary) is well underway too. These people really do work long hours… another story with Gary coming up later!! Around the corner in the New Market, Joe is already busy unloading the fish and placing the first items on display. Making sure that the fish is displayed well and looks its best is vitally important for customers, and at the heart of why Joe has a very successful business. The stall is impeccably clean as you will see from the videos how Joe washes down everything constantly. But none of this happens by itself. With limited display area, Joe needs to maximise on the space available. More like a construction site than a fish stall at the start with boxes and ice… plenty of ice… especially at this time of the year.

Close to 7am… the stall is looking amazing. With bolt on additional shelving added to the side of the stall, Joe is able to extend the unit a further 3 feet and this is used for shellfish and smoked fish items. Joe has already prepared and packed all the restaurant orders… so just the paperwork and invoicing to do (a real challenge with it being wet everywhere) and I think our work is almost done too. I select a whole range of fish for my weekend… Hake, Salmon, Tuna, King Prawns, Smoked Salmon and a bag of samphire should keep me going for the bank holiday weekend. Joe will now stay around until the ladies, Lisa and Sally come in at around 7:30am… when their day begins and Joe’s comes to a close. Joe is back late afternoon to clean up after the day’s trading, take stock and then begin placing orders for the next days trip to Billingsgate, although being a bank holiday weekend… there are a few days off at least.

Running a market stall such as a Fishmonger, Butchers, Fruit and Veg or even flowers is much more work than we can imagine… long hours, early mornings, lots of carrying back and forth, I think this short story might help us to appreciate these trades and what they do just a little more. We wish to thank Joe Stokes for inviting us into a glimpse of his world and we are very much looking forward to bringing more stories like this to the people of South West Herts and beyond.

Here is one of my weekend meals fish courtesy of Aylesbury Fisheries... a cheeky Salmon in Oyster sauce with grilled king prawns, boiled potatoes with oregano and butter.. and a salad with lebanese dressing... very tasty it was too!! ... from Billingsgate to the table!