Muscadet magic matches my mouthwatering molluscs, magnifique! (or, a day out at Billingsgate Market, Muscadet wine tasting and a cooking competition!)
There are those days when you feel truly blessed to be a food blogger. One such day for me recently was a fantastic experience organised by the magnificent Douglas Blyde in association with Loire Valley wines with a cheeky jaunt to Billingsgate Fish Market.
It all started off outrageously early with a car picking me up shortly after 5am. Was I awake? I think so, thank goodness for my cheery driver and my travelling companion Rosie (she runs a fab supperclub by the way!). We were heading for Billingsgate Fish Market. Established in 1327, the market over the centuries grew to become the largest fish market in the world and in 1982 relocated to its current site near Canary Wharf. It has a rich, colourful history and has some interesting stories to tell. Characters that you may have heard of who worked there include George Orwell and the infamous Kray twins. It is indeed a bustling hive of activity, people shouting, bartering and the all-encompassing smell of the sea is here for everyone to experience.
Our site visit began with a trip to the reputed Piggy’s Café. Tucked away in the corner, this is a traditional English cafe. There are no frills here, its full of fish sellers and customers nose-to-elbow scoffing down what this place is famous for. Bacon and scallop baps interspersed with glugs of steaming coffee. I love bacon, I love scallops and I love coffee. This was the fuel needed to ignite those fires we were going to be needing later on in the day, brain food for the competition to come.
As we headed out into the market one thing became abundantly clear within a few steps. There’s a lorra lorra fish ‘juice’ on the floor! Having worn sensible sneakers I had not, unfortunately, worn sensible trousers. The hems were happily sloshing along behind me in the juice. Luckily for me our guide for this morning’s visit, the incomparable CJ Jackson (she who wrote Leith’s Fish Bible) had quickly spotted my predicament. From out of nowhere she magically appeared with a pair of wellies and not just any old wellies but proper white, fishermen wellies! I slipped them on and happily threw myself into the market to barter for this morning’s catch.
I should probably point out that the main objective for today was a cooking competition to come. In pairs we were pitting our cooking skills against our pairing skills and matching a dish of our own creation to the magnificence of Muscadet wines from the Loire Valley. My partner in crime was that well known and loved foodie Alexandra. Muscadet makes a perfect match for meaty white fish and shellfish hence our visit to Billingsgate. As we ventured up and down the aisles looking for our perfect fruit de mers, it was hard to choose. There is a dazzling array of species available and was at times overwhelming. Decisions made we eventually went for cod and scallops. A safe option you may think but it depends what you eventually cook them with that will make or break your dish.
With our fish du jour bought we headed upstairs for a lesson in fish prep from the afore-mentioned CJ Jackson. CJ is the lady in charge of Billingsgate Seafood School who incidentally offer great classes in seafood prep and cooking. CJ made it all look very easy but my very unladylike shriek as a meaty mollusc closed its shell on my interfering thumb did not go unnoticed by my fellow foodies. Time to bite the bullet and get a grip. Eventually I got my act together and somewhat ‘expertly’, for want of a better word, prepped my scallops ready to cook.
Seafood in tow it was time to get down to business. We headed off in convoy to the Central Street Cookery School in EC1. Here we chose ingredients from a pre-selected array of veg, herbs and spices. The more astute bloggers had bought some of their own ingredients along to enhance their pre-determined dishes. Alexandra and I though were flying by the seat of our pants. Nothing like a last minute scrabble around a table to get those creative juices flowing real fast! This was definitely a Ready, Steady Cook moment.
Then we were off. Fifty minutes to cook something hopefully palatable and trying our best not to give the judges a touch of the old dodgy belly. The cookery school was well set up with everything we needed and if we couldn’t find what we wanted the staff were there to help. Our dish was to be a rustic vegetable melange topped with a great piece of cod and some beautifully cooked scallops. Inspired by family values and the cooking style of the Loire Valley our dish was to be simple, clean and yet tasty. We didn’t want to detract from the superb seafood by being too clever and messing around with loads of extra ingredients. At the same time we needed to make sure that we did our best to match the Muscadet wine to our dish. That being said there was a touch of fresh herbs and chilli in our vegetable broth and finished off with a flourish of coriander.
We prepared two plates. A starter size for the judges and a main course size for what was to be our communal lunch. As judging started we all took our turn to present our ‘winning’ dishes. Describing thoughts behind and ingredients in our dish to organiser Douglas and accompanying judge Jon Massey (from local publication ‘The Wharf Newspaper’), proved to be a nerve-wracking experience! I am not a natural public speaker and doubly so when there is a film camera pointing at me. Knees knocking I managed to somehow stumble through the presentation with an ever patient and supportive Alexandra at my side.
After everyone had presented their plates it was time for the judges to finish their scribbling, put down their forks and make the tough decision as to the winner. The dishes all looked so tasty and beautifully presented that I’m glad it wasn’t my decision to make.
The last part of our day saw us all taking our places at a long table and diving into the fishy dishes. There were so many delicious offerings it was difficult to choose which to taste. I opted for a little of each and I have to say I thought everyone did an amazing job, there was nothing I tried that I didn’t like. I also took away some inspiration to try at home. For the most part we’re not professionally trained chefs, we cook and write about food and are passionate about it. I thought the standard when it came down to it was pretty good so I guess these food bloggers really can cook!
Whilst enjoying our food we had a further tasting session of the wonderful Muscadet white wines from the Loire Valley. Presented by wine connoisseur Douglas Blyde it was the perfect way to finish our day. Being near the coast the vineyards proffer fruit with a bright and fresh character, easily palatable and perfect to match with seafood. The landscape is made up of mostly volcanic and sedimentary rocks which allows for a certain amount of acidity and freshness to come through. Made solely from Melon de Bourgogne grapes that have been planted in the region since around the 17th century, Muscadet is fast becoming a favourite with wine lovers everywhere. According to Jancis Robinson, British wine critic and columnist for the Financial Times ‘We must all drink Muscadet. Now.’ My favourite was the La Nantaise Muscadet from 4th generation winemaker Noel Bougrier, a delicious grapefruity kinda number and reasonably priced at £9.99.
Thanks to our hosts Douglas Blyde, Loire Valley Wines and Billingsgate Fish Market for a sublime day out. Also irrepressible judge Jon Massey for the lending of his tastebuds. You may be wondering after all this who won? It wasn’t us but we did get 9/10 for matching our dish near perfectly to the wine, not bad for a food writer 🙂
Special mentions – Thank you Alexandra for being an awesome partner for the day and letting me use the photos of our dish and us because I was too ‘argh’ at the cookery school to take many. Also thank you to Felicia for the photo of my dish being judged. You guys are what makes these events even more special.