Birmingham Indoor Market and Wholesale Market

We’ve been remiss here on SmokeandUmami, a Birmingham food blog and no mention of two of our most precious resources. Except for a short hiatus whilst the Bull Ring was being redeveloped, the Indoor Market has always been there to serve the city with fresh fish and meat. Down the road is its ugly sister the Wholesale market, threatened with extinction but hanging on for salvation. Both markets hold some wonderful fresh produce, the only thing they ask of you is to be brave and get stuck in. So to help you out here’s a guide to some of my favourite stalls in both markets, what’s good to buy and what to avoid. All opinions are my own, a Brummie who has been using the markets for over 30 years. Let’s start with the INDOOR MARKET:

George Smith and Pearce’s

These two have been here since the old days when the market was in the dank basement of the old Bull Ring. The rivalry between them has pretty much stayed the same too, which is a good thing because between them Birmingham is served with some great shellfish. You can buy fresh (by which I mean live) shellfish such as lobsters, crabs, scallops, mussels, oysters and clams six days a week Monday to Saturday. Out of habit I prefer George Smith’s to Pearce’s because I think they’re friendlier. But really the quality is about the same. I love buying live brown crabs, I think they’re the most delicious shellfish of all. The folks at Smith will let you handle and choose the one you want, they always seem to have more ‘in the back’ too. Pearce’s are a bit funny about you handling their critters. Both have beautiful native lobsters when in season, which I urge you to buy in preference to the dark shelled Canadian lobsters. The flesh of our blue native lobster are denser and sweeter. Both shops have an eat-in shellfish bar that serve prepared crabs, lobsters, oysters, whelks, mussels, cockles and even jellied eels. Though only Pearce’s sell live eels when in season.

H Satchwell*
Possibly the most unassuming fishmongers in the whole market. A small unit next door to George Smith’s, with only ever half a dozen fresh fish on display singly. Each fish is draped in a clear film, all in all a very sparse looking fish counter. But if you look closer, every fish is the best example of its kind and very fresh. If I were to open a sushi bar in the market I would make Mr Satchwell my very best friend. He always has wonderful flatfish such as brill, dover and lemon sole, large chunks of halibut and tuna. Again he only displays his fish singly but has more in the back. What’s more he has the best selection of kippers, smoked haddock and mackerel. I love kippers, try the Craster type if you’re a kipper fan. They’re fatter and juicier than the Manx kippers.
*not to be confused with W Satchwell, a new stall run by a cousin
AJ Barlows
In the centre of the market, this large three sided unit is half poultry and half fish. But that fish half consistently has the largest selection of fish in the whole market and is always bustling with activity on busy market days. I often buy their trays of farmed sea bass or gilt-head bream, usually 4 for a tenner, which makes them cheaper than the wholesale market. The turbot is always good here too, possibly my favourite fish much prized by Cantonese cooks for its firm white flesh and thick gelatinous skin.
All Seasons Fishmongers
Specialist in exotic fish from warmer waters, mostly previously frozen but impressive all the same. Especially the freshwater Rau a monstrously big river-fish from India, which one day I will pluck up the courage to buy. They only thing I do buy here regularly is octopus. These are the meaty twin sucker kind that taste much better than the single sucker variety that the rest of the market sells.

I don’t buy much meat at the market. The quality in general is middling at best but cheap! So here’s a very short list of what to look out for:
Walter Smiths
Greatest Pork Pie you will ever eat, that is all you need to know. Ok maybe one more thing; point to the one you want otherwise they’ll pick out the oldest one for you. All market butchers are inately crafty.
Usually a bit of bun fight at this pork specialist, if you can cut a swathe through the Chinese folk then the pork isn’t bad here. Though not all their pork is British, you have been warned.
Hong Keen
New kid on the block, a Chinese butchers with some decent cuts of beef and pork. Nice line in beef and pork offal, if you’re into that sort of thing.

China Mini Market

This place is the literal meaning of the word gem, something tiny and precious. Here you will find all you will ever need to make any Oriental (far Eastern) dish. From its awkwardly shaped frontage you will find fresh produce ranging from tofu, fish balls and noodles to Thai basil, banana leaves and galangal through to durian, mangosteen and rambutan past gai lan, choi sum and tong ho. Peek at the back wall and it’s crammed with every Oriental cupboard staple; soy sauce, chilli sauces, coconut cream, spices… Shout up here, the ladies that run it don’t stand on ceremony and don’t like to waste time. Essential one stop shop for all your Oriental needs.
Global Produce
Run by the same lot as the China Mini Market. Some of the produce here is replicated but sells more Western groceries. Apples, pears, oranges, leeks and celery replace pak choy and green mangos. However this shop has a slower turnaround and the produce is a little more tired than its Asian counterpart so choose carefully. Occassionally you will find something extraordinary here, a golden tamarillo anyone?

There are numerous West Indian stalls in the market, two near the Dudley St doors African Foods and Claras back onto each other and basically sell the same goods. Look out for the city’s finest patties Fenky Janes on sale at African Foods.
There are Halal butchers at the market too and I’ve bought the occasional mutton from them, the quality is variable though.
Mr Fish specialises mostly in game! But don’t fall for their patter, a lot of their stuff is very tired looking indeed.

100 metres down the road out of town is the concrete carbunkel of the Wholesale Market, the largest of its kind in the whole country. The market is split into four blocks: Meat, Fish & Poultry, Fruit & Veg and Horticulture. It’s open from 4am onward Monday to Saturday and is accessible to the public. For a few years there was a guard on the gate that stopped public vehicles from entering, you had to be in a trade vehicle or have a permit to drive in. So there was no choice for members of the public but to walk in. But I’ve noticed this year that the guard has disappeared so you can drive in now, just be careful of the forklifts and where you park. Of course as with any wholesale market in the world you need to get there early. I usually go around 7:30am to make sure there’s still plenty of fresh fish available, because seafood is the primary reason I get up early on either a Wednesday or Thursday (these are the best days for fresh fish). The fish & poultry section is to the right of the complex as you enter, follow the fork right and it’s the large building on the left. It used to house a dozen or so wholesalers but now it’s only half that and dominated by two large companies J.Vickerstaff and Caterfish.
Vickerstaff has more variety, stocking African and Asian species and salted dried fish from around the world. See if you can spot the box of red herrings that always seems to be there. To my eye though the quality of the fish at Caterfish is consistently better and they always have lots of good looking salmon, bass and bream. Caterfish also have 3 live lobster tanks in their cold storage room, if you are a lobster fan then ask to be shown inside where you can dunk your hands into the chilly waters and pull out your own fresh lobsters.
But my favourite fish wholesaler is WS Scott, a smaller operation nestled between the two big boys. Fresh prawns galore from little ones to banana sized ones from Africa. Always the best turbot here, usually two sorts wild and farmed. I prefer the farmed, from icy cold clean Norweigian waters they taste wonderfully clean. Dover soles, lemon soles, live crabs, lobsters, scallops, razor clams all usually very good quality. They are the only stall where I’ve bought live sea urchin. For that reason alone they will always be my favourite!
The poultry and egg section is adjacent to the fish market. H Bellingham sell Label Rouge French chickens which is essential for one of my ultimate dishes Hainan Chicken Rice. They also sell duck, game and around xmas time whole lobes of foie gras.
The wholesale fruit and veg market is enormous and there’s not a lot that the average punter can buy here except if like me you are a mango fanatic. Get your boxes of Indian or Pakistani mangoes from Bidwalla when they are in season.

17 thoughts on “Birmingham Indoor Market and Wholesale Market”

  1. Thank you for this. So interesting. I would not have known where to start. Can’t wait to try some of the fish stalls. Exciting!

    1. Were you tempted to you get anything Tania? I imagine half a dozen oysters and a dressed crab would make a decent lunch. Bring your own wine!

  2. Great post again Lap; I’ve seen a few of your tweets about the market and nosed around but this is a brilliantly comprehensive guide; can’t wait to get some kippers! (btw, whereabouts is Sushi passion cos I’ve looked twice and can’t find it.) You and Nick have got to have the best food blog in and about Brum. I love reading stuff from people with such a passion for food and it shines through whist providing really useful information. Just gutted I was away for your pop-up, have you got any plans to do any future events?
    I loved the triple roast blog and I tried the Peach Garden last week as Sum Ye was shut and they must have had a good pork day as the pork belly was crispy and delicious and the char siu whilst looking quite sorry for itself was sweet and flavoursome.
    Have you considered doing a similar post on the rest of china town. I’ve seen in previous posts and tweets you recommend the Golden Pond for Dim Sum and I’ve had great noodles at minmin. Other than reading a few good things about BBQ Village and Chung Ying I wouldn’t really know where to start. I.e are any of the Korean places particularly worth a visit? Either that or starting a paid chinatown guide service, I’d buy you Dim sum if you told me what to order lol!
    Cheers again, Alex

    1. Thanks for your great comments Alex, it’s good to know the odd Brummie is getting something useful out of the blog. I think the market should be the first port of call for everyone wanting to buy fresh seafood. At the moment most of the punters are ethnic or working class but if a wider spectrum of people use the markets for their food shopping then we can really make it flourish. (Sushi Passion is directly behind Pearce’s shellfish, follow it round to the left.)

      The Backyard Brummies don’t have any events planned, you’ll probably have to wait for next summer and for us to get our bbq buzz back to enjoy some smoked food cooked by us! But keep an eye out for events at Loaf HQ in Stirchley. Between loaf maestro Tom Baker and the super talented Dom Clarke there should be some interesting pop-ups happening.

      Glad to hear Peach Garden has it’s mojo back, I do like the roast duck in there and it’s still the only place you can get roast suckling pig. As for Dim Sum (Yum Cha) then I say just go for it at the Golden Pond. They’ll assume you’ll want the ordinary buffet set menu but insist on the dim sum menu, our good foodie friend Yen has done a beginner’s guide on her blog – check it out. BBQ village is really great, we love it in there and Miss Korea is also a good one. I like the sound of being a Chinatown eating guide, I could get paid in pork belly.

  3. Thanks for this post, I’ve found it really useful, I’m hoping to venture over before Christmas and pick up some shellfish, Lobster is a definite 🙂

    1. The Indoor market will be open on Xmas eve all day. Seafood-wise there will be plenty of fresh shellfish available and some wet fish too. Get there early to avoid disappointment.

  4. Dear Lap

    what a great blog. I’ve been a bit apprehensive about the food and wholesale market in case I get sold a load of duds.

    Saying that I’ve been experimenting with smoking meat and fish, both hot and cold, so the pop up thing struck a cord. Can I sign up to come?

    Lastly could I ask you is there a big diff in taste using fresh or cooked crab in recipes, and per crab, about how much of the weight is meat?

    Oh and do you have any any recipes for crab shell bisque?


  5. I have to confess, I’ve never “prepared” a crab for the pot before, so I view it all with a bit of trepidation.

    1. I don’t think you could even compare fresh with precooked crab meat. Fresh is far superior. Depending on whether you get a cock or hen, a 1kg brown crab (about £7 at the Indoor market) will yield about 200g of white meat and 150g of brown meat. Compare that with 100g of “fresh” white crabmeat in the supermarket for £5!

      If you’re interested in preparing shellfish you should keep you’re eyes peeled for my Seafood Two course at Loaf Cookery School in Stirchley. We’ll be preparing crab as well as other shellfish, dates haven’t been finalised yet but expect sometime in June.

  6. Really good blog post, fantastic in fact. I am at the moment toying with my 6 years of vegetarianism – to the point that under Dom Clarke’s recommendation a few months back I had the oysters at Maltby Market in London. I have not eaten any fish or meat since however. This blog has helped me to think about fish on offer in Birmingham and what might be my next decision with eating fish, thanks for the heads up.

    My next question is sustainability, do you follow the sustainability guides with fish and are their fish mongers who are following these guidelines? Or is the market not even close to that due to the clientele, without sounding snobby of course.

    1. Your comments about sustainability are perfectly valid. In fact the more we question the vendors at the market the more we raise awareness of the issues. At the moment the only vendor I can have a viable dialogue with is Satchwells. He often has MSC certified fish and line caught mackerel.

  7. Nice one Lap, going to check one of the eat in bars out tomorrow. Will report back. Thanks again for this blog post, will be sharing it for sure.

  8. Really helpful post! I’ve just moved to Birmingham and I’d been looking for a place to get some decent seafood when I stumbled on this post. I will definitely stop by market this week. Thanks

  9. Hi there, enjoyed your post.
    One question here: I’ve heard that in London, for example, there are markets/farms where you can buy a large portion of meat, for example you could buy half a pig or the entire leg.
    Do you know whether anything similar can be found in Birmingham (around B.)?
    Many thanks.

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