I have to confess to a somewhat odd fascination with fish markets. No, not your local fish monger or that fish case in the supermarket, but the really big ones—where the trawlers roll in to wharves around the world, one after another, to off-load their catch for the dawn wholesale fish auction.
I blame this on my father (well, why not?). When I was a wee New York lad of perhaps six he took me down to the Fulton Fish Market in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, right by the East River. In my memory, the market was vast, a block square, and inside were dozens upon dozens of aisles and stalls stocked with iced fresh fish of every imaginable description, manned by very large, very loud Italian stall-keepers trying to undersell and out-shout their neighbors to reel you in to buy (at that time the market was controlled by the Mafia!).
It was like theater; I was mesmerized. And this is also where, at a block-long raw bar, my father introduced me to the joys of just-shucked cherrystone clams and cocktail sauce. I was instantly hooked (pardon the pun) on raw clams (and later oysters)…but that’s another story.
As I have traveled over the years (mostly in Europe) to various port cities, I always try to haul myself out into the dark for the local fish auction—Greece, Italy, France, Denmark. From a purely scenic point of view, though, the most magical was Stavanger, near the southwest tip of Norway. Dawn had barely broken to reveal a port veiled in fog and, as if by magic, trawlers appeared like ghosts from the mist. You could hear them before you could see them by the thump-thump of their diesel engines. On and on they came. How they avoided collision in that gloom is still a mystery to me.
But my favorite fishing port, by far, is Newlyn Harbor, in Cornwall. It’s on the English Channel coast and is essentially indistinguishable from its neighbor, Penzance, where I’ve lived briefly in the past. More than 600 vessels in rainbow colors arrive to land up to forty different species of fish and shellfish each day, a list too long to note here but including species I suspect you’ve never heard of before, like Gurnard, Melgrim, or Pilchard (I certainly hadn’t). The auction begins at around 4:00 each morning when the graders and sorters organize the day’s haul by size and species. Then, the auctioneers and buyers arrive and it gets noisy. Everyone is dressed in what looks like white lab coats with matching white hats and they move quickly among hundreds of red crates full of iced fish. And though the auction is conducted in English, you’d hardly know it; it’s in some kind of code only they understand. But it is exciting.
Many years ago, my late wife and I went to our first Newlyn fish auction. It was over just as the sun rose over the Channel and the two of us were hungry for breakfast…which turned out to be fish (ling cod) and chips at a wharfside stand, wrapped in newsprint to absorb the oil. Right off the boat.
A very fond memory.