My alarm was set to jolt me out of bed at 5am on Saturday 3 October. The nerves, excitement and the ridiculously early start would have you believe that I was about to jet off to warmer, more exotic climes, but no, I was about to embark on a different journey. A journey called Muscadet Magic.
I was thrilled to be invited to take part in the superb Muscadet Magic event organised by food and wine extraordinaire, Douglas Blyde. Through a jovial email exchange, I sensed from Douglas’ prose that this here chap was dapper, charming and full of wit. A gentleman partial to a neckerchief. He didn’t disappoint.
In short, a challenge (and Muscadet) packed morning lay ahead for eight pairs of food bloggers battling it out to create an impressive seafood dish to complement the delicate notes of Muscadet wine to be judged, in true Masterchef style, by Douglas and Jon Massey, deputy editor at The Wharf.
I crept out of my Hackney flat at 5.30am to jump into a cab to whisk me to our first destination, Billingsgate Market, the UK’s largest inland fish market, to be met by the chirpiest London cabbie I have come across in in all my years (28 to be precise) of London living. I couldn’t quite appreciate it at the time (the entire journey was spent with mixed feelings of hunger, nausea and delirium) but thank you Abu for sharing your life experiences through the back streets of Tower Hamlets.
We were instructed to meet at the famous Piggy’s cafe for a traditional scallop and bacon bap and a strong English brew – necessary fuel for the action-packed morning ahead. With our tummies happily fed, we left behind the sizzle of the bacon and chatter of the market traders to meet with the legendary CJ Jackson, CEO of the Billingsgate Seafood School and author of Leith’s Fish Bible.
Armed with CJ’s tips and tricks of the trade, we set off into the bustling market in search of our star ingredients. On a mission to bag some fresh sea creatures, I dashed around the crowded market with London Perspective, my partner in fishy crime for the challenge. We were overwhelmed by the sheer sight of all the fresh produce in each and every direction, struggling to make sound choices amongst the crowds and noise.
I was feeling pretty smug with my strategic choice of footwear, noting the number of tourists clicking away on oversized cameras and increasingly wet jeans. A shame attack hit me, recognising that this was the first time I’d visited this amazing fish underworld on my doorstep, full of passionate market traders and exotic fish from all over the world. I soaked up the diverse mix of early birds ranging from restaurant chefs, tourists, curious Londoners and families dragging their bleary eyed children to snap up their fish suppers.
With freshwater prawns, cod loin and clams in hand, we were ready to prep our purchases with CJ. After an insightful Q&A, we headed to the kitchen where CJ expertly guided us through de-shelling, skinning, filleting and shucking our crustaceans and fish. I left with the must-have knowledge that when handling fish, the rule of thumb is to wash hands with cold and then warm water to avoid the linger of fish scented fingers.
Leaving Billingsgate Market and the early morning fog behind us, we bundled like rock stars into intimidating black cars with tinted windows, onwards to the Central Street Cookery School, but not before London Perspective dropped the bag of clams with wet, slippery, apologetic hands.
“You’re going to kill me” croaked London Perspective. We peered into the bag to assess the damage. A sea of broken shells and a handful of survivors. We prayed that the white wine steam bath the clams were due to receive would coax them from their firmly shut shells.
Sipping on chilled glasses of Aldi’s Exquisite Collection Muscadet at 10am, there was a distinct Absolutely Fabulous feeling in the air as we eyed up the larder of goodies, conspiring which ingredients had the potential to create a stand-out dish to marry with the crisp notes of Muscadet.
London Perspective and I decided upon a Mediterranean style tomato based fish stew with hints of lemon zest, chilli, parsley and chorizo to be served with garlic and olive oil brushed toast. Having spent the evening prior acquainting ourselves to Muscadet and becoming firm friends, we agreed that a dish laced with spice and zest could hold its own paired with such a crisp, fresh wine.
We scrambled around grabbing at fresh vegetables, herbs and spices to accompany our chosen seafood and then the 50 minute countdown began. Pots and pans rattled and the sound of chopping, peeling and frying ensued as London Perspective and I danced around our little work space, getting to work on our stew.
The stew was bubbling away with the chorizo and the tomato base intensifying on a gentle simmer. As Douglas bellowed the final 10 minute warning, I threw the remaining seafood into the stew as London Perspective began preparing the garlic bread. Lined up on a baking tray and ready for a good scorching, London Perspective proceeded to slide the tray onto the grill shelf when, CRASH, the entire shelf fell from the insides of the grill.
“What do we do now?!” panicked London Perspective and before I could respond, she was down on her knees, holding the tray up to the grill with unprotected hands, pleading for the grill to crisp up the bread before our time was up.
Our fears were confirmed when just two plump clams greeted us from their cosy shells. We rushed to plate up our stew and limp toast for the imminent judging. Alas, our seafood stew was not a winning dish, but we had a marvellous time trying.
With brows mopped and a deep sigh of relief, we sat down with our fellow challengers for an impressive feast, tucking into each other’s wonderful creations. Finally, Douglas led a wine tasting session, passionately steering us through a diverse selection of Muscadet sandwiched between anecdotes. We worked our way through the following:
Côtes de Grandlieu – Guérin 2014 (Waitrose, £7.99)
La Nantaise Réserve 2014 from Laithwaites (£9.99)
Les Gras Moutons 2013 from Domaine de la Haute Févrie (£11.95)
Le Pallet 2010 – Les Dix du Pallet (£14.99)
Each wine was a delight on the palate but it was the latter which bowled me over, with its light buttery notes and citrus zing, aged to perfection over an 18 month period.
With a Muscadet tinged glow in our cheeks, we thanked Douglas for the delightful adventure and wandered in the direction of home in the early afternoon for some much needed sleep. It’s fair to say that Muscadet was the real winner that day. I’m ever so glad we met.
A fantastic video capture of our adventure can be viewed below: