Bonnie Gull, seafood and Billingsgate Market
“I’m going to really embarrass my son here and say that we’d both love the lobster, but have never eaten it. Is there anything we need to know?”
I had very, very limited seafood experiences growing up. Aside from the rather tasteless fish and chips or fish fingers I might have on the odd weekend as a child, or occasional bits of salmon as a teenager, fish never really entered my life for a long time. But then a love for food didn’t really enter my life for a long time either.
My proper journey with seafood began last year. I made an effort to buy fish I hadn’t had before. I bought sea bass, which I cooked with a pepper sauce as dictated by Gordon Ramsay, which would have been delicious but was entirely ruined by star anise. I picked up sardines, grilled with butter and lemon, absolutely delicious. I ordered bream at Moro at a birthday dinner with colleagues. The list goes on.
I can’t remember the first time I had mussels, but when I did, a conversation came back to me about how to eat them (using a shell to pinch out the flesh from another), which was useful. But last year when at a work lunch at Santore on Exmouth Market, I was faced with something I didn’t know how to eat. In the spirit of trying new seafood, I went for a seafood linguine, it had clams and mussels and prawns. I had never eaten prawns before. I had never really paid attention to anyone eat prawns, and I had no memory recall of a conversation about eating prawns.
So I sat there with a knife and fork trying to disassemble this delicious looking prawn, trying to work out which bit you eat and which bit you don’t. I ate a lot of shell by mistake before someone quietly pointed out you break them in half with your fingers. What a revelation.
Which takes us back to Bonnie Gull, a restaurant I’ve wanted to visit since it opened last year, and one where, when my mother was staying for the weekend recently, sprang to mind straight away for lunch. Almost immediately we both agreed to have the lobster. Flashbacks of prawngate sprang to mind, but my mother’s conversation with the waitress quickly put that to rest – and immediately I thought, why don’t we always just do this?
My love for food has been a growing thing and when I think about its trajectory over the past four or five years, my memory is of lots of firsts. The first time I cooked a Sunday roast flawlessly and without referring to timings or recipes; the first time I filleted a fish; the first time I tried pigeon; the first time I completely nailed a Hollandaise sauce to go with eggs; the improvised, Spanish stew I put together this summer; the first time I had steak rare and really understood how delicious it was; the first time I ever cooked a proper French daube.
But none of those firsts were like the first lobster I had at Bonnie Gull. I hadn’t experienced something that tasted so explicitly different to anything else I’ve had before and been so delicious. Sweeter and fleshier than any other fish I’d had with a tender, delicacy that I can’t really compare to anything else.
The lobster, served alongside fries and a small salad, some melted butter, and washed down with a wonderful Languedoc, was – and I can say without any sense of hyperbole – one of the greatest meals I’ve ever had in my life. There was an overwhelming feel of content and genuine joy when I finished. I was amazed, surprised and entirely refreshed by the whole thing.
Dear lobster, where have you been all of my life?
* * * *
Yesterday, the Flatmate and I decided to go to Billingsgate Market. Waking up at 4am after staying out until 1/2am the night before, wasn’t perhaps the best way to start the day, but we were committed. The journey there on two night buses and then getting lost in a Canary Wharf business park took over an hour and a half, but as soon as we stepped into the market, it was all worth it.
Billingsgate at 8am, winding down (photo credit)
I saw so many fish that I’ve only ever seen in recipe books or on TV; fish you never see on typical menus or in supermarkets, and it was all so fresh and huge. Salmons so large that they would feel cramped in a bath, let alone in any meagre pots I own. Rows and rows of fidgeting lobsters and crabs. Mackeral, red mullets, pilchards and all other fish I could think of, and many more that I hadn’t.
Hundreds of people buying fish by the bag, the box and the crate. Negotiating over price; trawling through the boxes to get the dozen fish that they were the best of the lot. I actually felt a little heady walking around; it could have been the hangover, but I like to think that it was salty air, the smell of fresh fish and the unique atmosphere created in this little corner of London that only exists while most people are still sleep.
For any lover of food, Billingsgate will be heaven. And the part I have neglected to mention yet, is just how bloody cheap it is. Readers will know I am a fan of thrift and economical ways of cooking. And there’s not much more economical than a box of (25) sardines for just £7, two crabs for £5, or lobsters at around £8 each. I will be eating sardines a lot in September, the delicious little things they are, and I can’t wait.
Seafood, it took me a long time to fall for you, but finally, I am here.
Originally published at www.eggsbenedictandaglassoffizz.co.uk.