“What could be better than sitting on a park bench with a few chips and a lovely piece of skate all wrapped in a newspaper? Brother, you are the King of England.”


Roger Barton is a piscine poet – speak to him about his beloved fishes, and your salivary glands will immediately be stimulated into overload by the textures, tastes and smells his words evoke. Yet in the mad bustle of Billingsgate he’s an oasis of calm, ticking off orders and pointing out polystyrene crates of Sea Bass, Bream, and especially the Tuna in which he specialises, while around him chaos reigns: shouts, smells, and trolleys of glistening produce being wheeled around at high speed. It looks like a tough, high-pressure job. But he loves it, and he loves his fish.

You’ve been in Billingsgate for 52 years – what were your first impressions of the place?
Well, I was a boy of 15 and  it was the smell of fish. If you’re not used to you it kind of hits you, you think, Bloody Hell! Though you soon get used to that smell. Then there was the different varieties of fish, the way people worked , the way fish was hauled about by the porters, so many things you don’t know about, so you were learning about it daily.  But it was the smell of fish, first… the men always smell fishy and unfortunately after you’ve been in the industry for some period of time, no matter how much you shower, no matter how much you bath… you could sit in a bath filled with champagne, and I promise you, you’d go out, and people will say – can you smell fish? It gets into your hair, it gets into your pores, there’s very little you can do about it, you can be the most cleanly person in the world, you’re out somewhere, it’s raining, and Bloody Hell, it smells again.  I remember one day coming home on the train from Liverpool Street station, I was only a youngster myself,  I made out I was asleep, and I could hear these kids.. going sniff, sniff, ‘can you smell fish?’ And out of the corner of my eye I could see one pointing to me. So there you are.

So there was the smell, the sheer variety, and the men. Now, they weren’t common men, they weren’t coarse men,  but the language was quite.. colourful. Put it like that. For a young lad  of 15, obviously, people F-ing and blinding was something quite new.  Of course one soon got used to it and really it means nothing,  it’s just the language of most markets. If I call you a bastard, it doesn’t mean anything – it’s the way it’s said.  You learn that thing of life, when people calls you a bad name, it’s not what they call you, it’s how they call you it.

So, we talked about the smell of fish – do you still like fish?
I love it. I would eat it every day of the week,  there’s such a wonderful variety of fish, specially now, we sell from Brazil, Australia, Sri Lanka, the Indian Ocean. When I started there wasn’t things like red snapper,  yellow tail snapper, there wasn’t doctor fish… that’s because now there are so many people come from other countries,  they want the fish they have been used to. And we got educated. When you think of meat, you have chicken, you have cows, you have sheep, and you come to a stop before you’ve got very far. But I swear to you, every fish has got its unique flavour, and I could feed you a different fish 365 days a year and  every one I’ve served up you’d go, ‘that’s lovely’. And obviously it’s very healthy, it’s got oil in it, and you wouldn’t be fat, put it like that.

Arggggh, you’re making me hungry!
Precisely!  Now you’d go down the old fish and chip shop, and what better to savour, the lovely smell of haddock, or a nice bit of cod or a lovely bit of skate. What could be better than sitting on a park bench with a few chips and a lovely bit of skate, all wrapped in a newspaper bit of pepper and salt and maybe a dash of vinegar?  And, brother, you are the king of England.

Obviously, fishing was such a part of our industrial culture – as a kid I can remember all the trawlers on the River Hull, hundreds of them. Twenty years ago they were lined up at the side of water; and now they’re all gone. So that does reflect some profound changes in Britain?
It’s terrible. Terrible.  If there’s another Dunkirk today, I’m afraid to say they’d have to swim home. We haven’t got the fleets, we haven’t got the boats. Now, you go could go into the political side of it and say Ted Heath sold the fishing industry down the river, maybe he did, I don’t know. But nevertheless at one time we had one of the greatest fishing fleets in the world but we gradually sold ourselves down the river. If you see what the Icelandic people have done, they put a 50 mile cordon around Iceland, and said, Gentlemen, outside that 50 miles, fill yourselves to your heart’s content, but please do not come inside that 50 miles, because  this is our living, this is the survival of our country, we need our fish.  And we should have done something similar.

All the more bizarre when we have things like spider crabs in our waters – and we send them all out to Spain or Portugal.
Exactly  – the Brits don’t eat it.  They must want their brains testing! Spider crabs, when you break the legs off, they’re all full of meat. All you need, in some restaurants they give you a little hammer, you just give it a little tap and all the meat comes out, it’s absolutely delicious. But it’s fiddly and some people, especially men, they don’t want to ponce around with it. But I bring a nice crab home at the weekend, I’ll sit there and it will take me two hours to eat it – and half the fun is dissecting it and getting the meat out!

Eating fish is both a history and a geography lesson.
Yes it is.Unfortunately if you went to nine out of ten men in this country and said, Would you like a nice bit of fish or would you like a T-Bone steak, we are a meat eating nation and they will go for the steak. But really they are bloody mad!

What is your Desert Island Fish?
That is a good question, a hard question. As a man that loves all fish, I think I might go for a turbot, or a bass, or I might go for a simple piece of haddock. I’d be very happy to be on the island with that.

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

“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.