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Fish for Christmas, part 1: Pickled herring

Up at early o’clock last week for a visit to Billingsgate Market, London’s wholesale fish market located down in Poplar. The objective was to buy some fish for Christmas; in particular, we were after a salmon with which we could make gravadlax and some herrings with which we could make, well, pickled herring.

The market was as busy as ever – we’d got there by about 5am – and as is usual on a visit to Billingsgate, you do need to keep an eye out for the porters with their heavy trolleys. We were very quickly able to find ourselves some herrings, sold fresh at £5:50 for three kilos. They hadn’t been gutted but I’ve done that before so I reckoned it wouldn’t be a problem. 

Last time we made pickled herring we’d a hard job trying to find a fishmonger selling the stuff (eventually settling on a kosher place in Edgware that just happened to have some in stock), which was one of the reasons why we’d opted for Billingsgate this time – for if you can’t find the sort of fish you want there, you might as well give up. Then we looked for the salmon, coming across someone else selling herring that had already been gutted and filleted in the process! After getting the salmon (gutted, this one), we picked up a few other bits and pieces before going for breakfast.

This was in one of the market’s cafés, decorated with photos of porters in the old market in the City (where they wore those leather hats that they could balance several crates of fish on); that one closed in 1982 when the market moved to its current location in the Docklands. On previous visits to the café I’ve always been tempted by the smoked haddock and poached egg option (it is a fish market, after all) but had shied away from the £10 price on the grounds that we’ve not usually got much cash left by this point. But cash we had today, so I ordered it. So did Dad. Turns out that it’s a big piece of haddock so you really do get your money’s worth.

Back home, my big job involved gutting and filleting – first the herring, then the salmon (the latter had already been gutted, at least). I have a thin, sharp knife for this, and I have gutted and filleted herring for the purpose of pickling it for Christmas before; that said, it probably took two or three fish to get back in the hang of it. Once the fillets have been removed, they need to be gone over with a pair of tweezers to make sure the bones have all been removed. After this, the herring fillets were washed, dried and put in the fridge to anticipate the pickling process. The salmon was filleted – and after the fillets were cut up we had some to spare for the freezer as well as for the gravadlax (of which more in a later post).

We make two kinds of picked herring – garlic herring and, err, pickled herring. The first – my favourite – has the herring fillets layered in jars with a mixture made from shredded carrots, a shredded onion, tomato juice, garlic, pickling spice, a bay leaf and vegetable oil; this mixture is heated until the carrots and onions are cooked and then cooled and the bay leaf removed before being added to the jar with the herring fillets. Pickled herring is the herring fillets layered in a jar with onion slices, with the jar then being filled with the pickling liquid (water, vinegar, sugar and pickling spices) that’s been boiled and cooled.

This needs to be done about two weeks before you are due to serve it. So that’s one part of the food for Christmas done!

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