“You’re doing your brains in – but that’s life. It’s a market. It’s supply and demand.”

 

There are few places that assault the senses so powerfully, or thrillingly, as Billingsgate market: the shouting, the brutal white fluorescent light that hurts your eyes once you come in out of the dark, the endless white polystyrene boxes of glistening creatures from far-flung oceans – or the shock of being up at five in the morning. Mick Jenrick’s eel store is one of the longest-established corners of the current Billingsgate. We were told he was famously grouchy but perhaps that’s part of his legend; he and his daughter seem like sweethearts, and when we phoned him up at the wrong time for some more questions, waking him from his hard-earned sleep, there was not even one Billingsgate swear-word. He’s proud of his eels, and he should be.

So, the obvious question – how did you get into eels?
We’re going back a long time now, aren’t we? It started fifty years ago –  my dad used to be what was called an empty box boy, sending the empty boxes back to the coast. I followed him into the market and worked for an eel company, and after that broke away and went on my own.

You must have seen huge changes at Billingsgate over 50 years?
Oh yes. Listen, I’m only isolating the eel industry, or the seafood part, but 50 years ago you didn’t have any Chinese takeaways, you didn’t have any Indian restaurants,you didn’t have places selling Cornish pasties, we had the whole market! Everything was geared towards seafood – because the only fast food was jellied eel stalls and seafood stalls. Now there’s a big change in society and now instead of the whole market you’ve got a small percentage. But that’s life, you can’t stop progress.

I get the feeling eels have been getting less popular, but that recently we’ve started valuing traditional English food more. Is there a revival?
It goes in fits and starts. You’ll be selling x amount then every eight or ten years it drops. But then it doesn’t drop again for maybe another eight or ten years. And we’re hoping that it bottoms out. But it’s a challenge, when you think what you can get for the price of a pot full of eels. In these times people are looking to save their pennies, probably you would have had somebody eating eels every week, and now they might eat them every few weeks. And that’s not because of the quality, because the quality is fantastic. Nowadays the product is better than ever, years ago you’d get fresh eels up to November, then have to wait right around to May to get more. Now the farmed eels are absolutely to perfection.

You have a great, positive attitude to these changes.
It’s not positive. It’s common sense! You got to use a bit of common sense – I can’t knock what we do, the only part about it is we are not selling enough to make it as good as it was. Also it’s a double whammy with the farm bills. The majority of the fishermen in every country are fishing wild eels, and then some balloon said they’re an endangered species. Now, the only reason for that is Europe have got a deal with China to export 16 ton of elvers. That 16 ton elvers would produce 160,000 ton of adult eels. If they weren’t going out of Europe there wouldn’t be no shortage. Then there’s the Euro! You’re an importer and you’re doing your brains ‘cos the pound’s so weak. But that’s life. It’s a market. It’s supply and demand.

Who are your main purchasers?
It’s still the little stall outside the pub –  and there’s still quite a good number of them. Then we sell to Birmingham, the fish market, then there’s quite a few people buy the product and sell ‘em on line. I suppose we could get into that but then… you can’t serve your customer and his customer. That’s probably my undoing. Because the market gets more and more like a sweet shop. It’s supposed to be a wholesale market and they wanna turn it into retail, and if they do it will just die a death.

Billingsgate has always been famous for the shouting and the swearing – has that changed since you’ve been there?
No. It’s no different. Probably more louder in my shop than anywhere else!

What’s your favourite product of everything you sell?
Eels, what else? I love them. Stewed, Chinese style – any thing that’s got the eels in, I love.

Your daughter Kate is charming, would you like to see her take over the business and carry it into the future?
Oh really?! I’ll tell her mum you said that! No, she is really wonderful, her and her mum .I try to lose the customers – and they try to keep them.

Mick Jenrick is at Billingsgate Market, Trafalgar Way, London E10, Tuesday-Saturday, 5am-8.30am.

Comments

One Response to “Mick Jenrick, Eel evangelist”

  1. Deptford Pudding on February 17th, 2012 11:17 pm

    I buy cockles and prawns every weekend from Mick’s stall outside the Downham Tavern (Sat & Sun), its run by his brother-in-law I think. In fact just this evening we had kippers I bought from the stall last Sunday. A treasure.