I’d been for a night out in Soho on a mission to find the perfect Ramos Gin Fizz. But now it’s 5.30 a.m. And I’m standing outside my front door somewhere in the boondocks of north-west London. Lights started flashing, which wasn’t unusual, and a menacing voice called out “You’ll be wanting to get into the car sir.”
I’d seen this stuff in films and bad things happened if you didn’t go. Bad things happened if you did go but I wasn’t in a fit state to argue.Forty five minutes later I’m somewhere called Billingsgate which is full of dead fish and a motley crew of desperados. I must be in on a big heist job. Or maybe I’m dead?-sleeping with the fishes as the mafia boys say…I’m taken to Piggy’s Cafe where a bloke with a pink hanky offers me a scallop roll. He’s a bit on the loud side for first thing but seems legit enough for a guy in spotty trousers. He stumps up £25 each for us to ‘buy some seafood’.I’m paired up with a tough broad called Fiona from the London Unattached mob. I don’t ask any questions. Sometimes it’s better not to know too much. She drives a hard bargain with the dealers and we come away with a stash of ‘oysters, shrimp and scallops.’Then we’re taken to meet the Ms Big of the operation who’s calling all the shots. She’s going under a fake ID calling herself C.J Jackson, CEO of the Billingsgate Seafood School. C.J lays down the rules for “preparing the seafood” and told us “wash our hands with cold then warm water to clear all the traces.” She’s clearly a pro-she’s not fooling me. There was a lot of shucking and gutting then we bagged up our stash and headed downstairs.
We get into a fleet of black limos. which turn up to take us to the job. It’s a flashy joint that goes under the name Central Street Cookery School. We get given a glass of vino to steady the nerves. Aldi’s Exquisite Collection Muscadet – it’s not pricy but has a lemony thing that cuts through nicely for a 10 a.m. loosener.That Fiona dame tells me sotto voce that I’m gonna be her cooking partner in a seafood cookery competition pairing a dish of our choice with a bottle of Muscadet, the classic Loire seafood wine. I’m a bit confused as I’ve never been on a heist like this but I’ve cooked a few books in my time so I figure it will be a breeze.
We settle on New Orleans Po’ Boys and we have 50 minutes to deliver. Deep-fried seafood in a bun with a home-made tartare sauce with a crunchy mustardy celeriac Remoulade on the side. I’m on the frying station, battering those Po’ Boys in a mix of cornmeal, flour and buttermilk. I’m good at battering…Fiona is handy with a blade and chops up those cornichons and capers finer than anyone but Lucky Luciano himself could have managed for the sauce, and then slices the Remoulade molto picante with some Dijon. I butter the hot dog rolls and stick them in the pan and before you can say Al Capone our dish was hot to trot. It wasn’t posh enough for the judges, Douglas Blyde-the cravat-toting dude who scribbles about vino for the boys at The Daily Telegraph, and Billingsgate homeboy Jon Massey of The Wharf newspaper. However the other hoodlums couldn’t get enough of our concoction so I vote that we were the people’s choice.
The job had obviously gone off smoothly as the booze was flowing. Cravat man was getting us to sniff, swirl and swoosh the wines around our mouths and then randomly make up words like mineral, yeasty and butterscotchy. Finally the penny dropped. It was an old-fashioned vino scam. I was starting to enjoy myself. So here are my tasting notes. Guérin 2014 from brothers, Luc and Jérome Choblet (Waitrose, £7.99) had the classic Muscadet mineral and citrus taste with a slight fizz for the ladies. Next up was La Nantaise Réserve 2014 from Laithwaites (£9.99) which had a stoned out of your head grapefruit tang. Our penultimate plonkola was Les Gras Moutons 2013 from Domaine de la Haute Févrie, it had a rounder less acidic taste and can be liberated from old-school big shots Berry Bros & Rudd (£11.95). Last out was Le Pallet 2010 – Les Dix du Pallet (£14.99), which was smooth and buttery with a hint of oak.
We then sat down and toasted the winners (a pair of kids and we all know you can’t win anything with kids) and had something resembling a party eating all the nosh. Thanks to Douglas and those Loire wine boys for organising the smash and grab. It all seemed a bit fishy at first but came good in the end. As for me I’ll be opening a bottle of Muscadet or three now and again to go with my fish and chips.