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‘If it swims, we sell it,’ says the sign above one stall in London’s Billingsgate Market.

We knew we’d miss the main event. Most of the fish at this historic East End place (the largest selection of fish in the UK) is shifted well before 8am – and that’s near the end of a full working day for the traders. But it wasn’t quite over. There were still stacks of gigantic salmon ice-packed and ready to be shipped, buckets of crabs in the last weary snips of life and slippery pyramids of glistening mackerel.

If anything, the atmosphere was better. The 50+ traders were either leaning on their tiled stalls totting up their sales on damp yellow pads, bantering as only Cockneys can, or wheeling tall stacks of polystyrene boxes around.

There’s was whistling.

I wished I too was wearing white wellies, not summer sandals.

‘’Ere,’ said one lad. ‘Look at this.’ He beckoned. I tip-toed over some crab claws. He lifted up the lid of a box to reveal a stash of sparkling, emerald-green samphire. ‘Season’s short,’ he said, piling several handfuls into a plastic bag. ‘We get it for six weeks here, then from France. After that, it comes all the way from Mexico. You can’t freeze it.’ He handed me the bag. ‘Blanch it,’ he said. ‘Then, five minutes before your fish is ready, heat up some olive oil and butter. Add a bit of garlic, then throw it in. If you’ve got a few chilli flakes, that’ll be beautiful.’ With that, he handed me the bag of samphire. ‘My treat,’ he said, and went back to his hosing down the fish-heads.

We went to the café. As we ate kippers with hot thin toast and hot thin tea, we listened to the fish-mongers’ relaxed, merciless banter.  And there’s me thinking Billingsgate was all about fish.

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