“I’ve been nowhere, all I’ve done is stood in Billingsgate fish market for many, many years,” says cheeky chirpy chappy Roger Barton (aka the King of Billingsgate Market).”
Barton has worked as a fishmonger for nearly 50 years, and his warm persona has helped make him a top seller at one of London’s most famous food markets. “A smile there, a wink here. Once you get people interested and they smile back at you and warm to you, you’re in with a chance,” he says. Frequently appearing on Alex Zane’s XFM breakfast show, Barton has become a cult hit. As part of World’s Greatest Food Markets, the BBC sent him around the world to see if his trader’s charms would work around the planet.
“I’ve been nowhere, and thought ‘maybe it’s time I did’,” he explained on taking up the opportunity. Sadly for Barton, the production threw him right in at the deep end, taking him to Mercado Central del Abasto, Mexico. “The buggers,” laughs Barton. “They didn’t exactly welcome us in Mexico,” he says, “the traders threw apples, grapes and a million other things at us when we first got there. The missiles were coming in every direction.” That is until Barton turned on his London charisma.
“After a time, they warmed to us. I had an apron with ‘Roger the bastard’ on it, and as I was coming down the aisles, and there’s 70-miles of aisles as far as I’m aware, they were shouting ‘Ro-ger, Ro-ger!’ They took us in in the end and it was a great experience.”
In Azadpur Market, Delhi, Barton eventually got his own back on the production team. “They made me eat some fruit there,” he says, “it was basically mouldy green corn on the cob. I started eating it, and my god it was terrible, [the crew said] ‘what’s it like?’ and I said ‘oh you’ve got to taste this, this is fantastic’ and of course all the others dived in – to see their faces after they’d swallowed it, it was quite amusing.”
Meanwhile, at New Fulton Fish Market, New York, Barton may have found his international patch. “I don’t care what anyone says about the Americans, they’re wonderful,” he says. Despite staying in Harlem, one of New York’s notoriously dangerous neighbourhoods, he felt perfectly at home. “I was going out on my own at times and never did I ever feel that I was going to be robbed, attached or mugged. The locals were always very, very friendly. They were respectful, lovely chaps.”
Travelling has made Barton come over all philosophical, “I’ve got the taste for seeing other people and the way they trade,” says Barton, “It made me think about what I’ve done in life, and made me wonder if I’ve been on the right trail? The pound sign is not the be all and end all.
“In Billingsgate it’s nice to know you can make a few quid, and it’s nice to know that, at times, you’re the top man. In the places we visited for the show it didn’t seem to matter. It’s nice to be important, but it’s important to be nice.”
ROGER BARTON’S TOP THREE FOOD MARKETS OF ALL TIME:1. Mercado Central del Abasto, Mexico
“For quantity and variety you’ve got to go to Mexico,” says Roger. “The Mercado Central del Abasto sells every piece of fruit you could ever wish to name. This is an unbelievable market, it’s around 600 acres in size, and has 400,000 people going through the door everyday. People even live there all the time. There are some very rich men there, and some very poor men.
2. Azadpur Market, Delhi
“It was breathtakingly vast, here there’s a market within a market within a market,” says Barton. “There’s a tremendous variety of fruit, and they will just put down a sack, put their wares out and try and sell them. One of the amazing thing is that groups of ladies will just sit there and peel the fruit. I saw about 40 ladies peeling garlic, all working hard, that was their sole job – to shave this garlic. Then they would sell them, people were queuing up to buy them. Fascinating stuff, when you think how hard they work and how little they get.”
3. Billingsgate, London
“There’s a great variety of fish, even more than in the American, Mexican and Indian markets I visited. I could feed you a different fish 365 days of the year from Billingsgate,” says Barton. “A great mixture of people come to Billingsgate. On Fridays and Saturdays it’s mainly the public, the rest of the week it tends to be buyers for hotels, restaurants, caterers and people who service people, even hospitals. We serve people in Birmingham down to Cornwall. Although in Cornwall you get lots of fish, you don’t get the variety that you can get in Billingsgate.”
Watch the World’s Best Food Markets at 9pm, Sunday November 16 on BBC2
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