Friday, 16 January 2009

Deptford fish shops: second only to Billingsgate

Readers of this blog who have never ventured down Deptford High Street, or haven't been here recently, will probably question my claim that the availability of wet fish on the high street is second only in London to the range you can find at Billingsgate.

But this modest parade of shops boasts no fewer than THREE shops, solely (*groan sorry!*) devoted to fish, and at least three more that sell a range of wet fish alongside meat, fruit and veg, and groceries. Salt cod fish is available in many of the grocery shops and some also sell dried smoked fish and dried shrimps too.

Let's start at what I call the 'bottom' end of the High Street, which is actually the north end (Creek Road). Walking towards the railway station, the first place you come across is Lai Loi, the double-fronted oriental food store which always has stacks of boxes of fresh fish and seafood on the right-hand side of the shop front, along with fresh veg and fruit on the left-hand side. Venture in for all manner of groceries, noodles both fresh and dried, sauces, dumplings, and fridges full of chillies, lemongrass and many other things I can't identify without help! Lai Loi also counts as one of the high street's few 'late night' shops, staying open till round about 9pm most nights (although to be fair a lot of the independent food shops do open till about 7pm every night).

Pass under the railway, and you'll soon come to the first of the dedicated wet fish shops, the relative newcomer Deptford Seafood Centre. If you are a lover of shellfish and crustaceans of all weird and wonderful types, this will probably be your favourite plaice (*oops I just can't help myself!*). It often has bundles of razor clams on sale, their innards oozing out of the damp newspaper wrapping like some kind of oversize pasta, as well as several different types and sizes of crabs, and various familiar and unfamiliar shellfish. I like it for its fresh whole king prawns which you can buy by weight rather than in pre packed boxes. It also sells a large range of fish.

A few paces further on and you come to a small grocers shop on the left hand side (directly opposite my favourite grocers, Housewives Cash and Carry). Until fairly recently this shop didn't sell any wet fish, but either it has changed hands or the owner has decided to jump on the bandwagon in the hope of tapping into what seems to be Deptford's insatiable desire for seafood. It has a modest range of fish on offer, neatly arranged on a bed of ice in front of the shop. I can't say whether it's any good or not, I'm not a customer.

Keeping to the same side of the high street, the next dedicated fish shop is just a few doors down - and this one specialises in frozen fish. Lobo Seafood Shop ('Lobo means good fish' we are told helpfully on the sign above the door). The shop is small but has freezers full of catering-size boxes and bags of fish, prawns and seafood. Here you can buy tilapia, parrot fish, catfish, barramundi, grouper, mahi mahi, and milkfish, alongside more recognisable species such as mackerel and tuna. There is also almost a whole fridge full of smoked fish of various types. All the fish on sale is frozen, most of it in bags containing several portions, or full boxes, but prices seem to be very reasonable.

A little way further along the road comes the imposing double-front of My Butchers - the place does mostly deal in meat, but it also sells bags of fish from the huge tables on the pavement outside. On Saturdays in particular you will find the tables overflowing with plastic bags filled with peppers, scotch bonnet chillis, okra and root ginger extend the shopfront halfway across the pavement, and the 'everything in the bag for a pound/fiver/tenner' philosophy also extends to the fish. Which is probably why I have never bought anything here. If you are lucky, you might pass by on one of the days when they have a box full of enormous live snails on sale.

My favourite fishmongers stands a couple of doors further along the High Street - the venerable Cod Father's (can you see where I get it from?!). Most days they offer a modest selection of wet fish - mackerel, salmon, tuna, red snapper, sea bass and so on - but on Saturdays they really push the boat out (*I will stop soon, I promise*).

Pinky-white expanses of skate wings; monster lumps of tuna or swordfish from which a steak can be cut to your exact specifications; the old favourites cod, smoked haddock, plaice, mackerel, whitebait rub shoulders with boxes of fresh lobsters and crabs, bags of mussels, whole squid in sizes ranging from tiny to ginormous, monkfish, scallops and even octopus on occasion. Sometimes you can get fresh oysters. You might see them bringing out a huge steaming vat full of freshly-boiled lobsters or crabs which are sold as soon as they are cool enough to be handled. Just stand and watch the trade for ten minutes or so on a Saturday morning (perhaps while waiting to be served - sometimes it's a bit chaotic!) and you will be amazed at how brisk it is!

And for anyone looking for a more sustainable white fish than the shop's namesake, Cod Father's also offers pollock and coley for sale.

If you haven't been tempted by the offerings of the high street so far, it's possible that fish isn't really your thing. You have one last chance as you pass the All Brothers Butchers a little further down on the same side. Despite its name the shop also has a large table out on the pavement which is laden with a wide range of fish. Whoever does the display seems to have quite a creative bent, it is often worth a look for artistic merit alone!

It's worth noting that the Cod Father's is not the only remnant of London's traditional fish trade in Deptford. The bottom of the high street is home to two pie and mash shops, at least one of which also serves eels and liquor. Although I like eels, I've never understood the attraction of liquor. Maybe it's because I'm (not) a Londoner but liquor to me looks like watery parsley sauce and tastes of nothing. But each to his own.

Finally, if you find yourself in Deptford High Street on a Sunday morning, don't forget to check out the wares of John Ovenell's seafood trailer that sets up in Giffin Square at about 8.30am until early afternoon. As well as fantastic kippers you can get dressed crabs, cockles and winkles (served in the traditional fashion, in vinegar in a polystyrene cup with a cocktail stick as a fork), whelks, prawns and so on. It used to be traditional to offer dishes of free seafood in pubs on Sunday mornings - I guess it's a traditional that still prevails in some places, does anyone know of one locally? When I first came to London 20 years ago I remember seeing it on offer in the Prince of Orange in Greenwich (the pub next to the station, now a St Christophers Inn).


Anonymous said...

today I was on Deptford Market and I saw a woman buying some live crabs. While they were moving the guy on the stall said 'don't worry they're dying'. I really wanted to buy some fish today but there were too many flies landing on them - usually they're really good but today I was quite grossed out.

jade said...

Thirdly, the occasional customer might pop in during your meal to buy last minute ingredients for their dinner party. Richard

D1 said...

Where's john ovenells stAll now 2016?

Deptford Dame said...

@denise John's stall went some years ago. This post was in 2009 - I suspect he probably retired!