Equally delicious when served up as the French (or should that be Belgian?) staple of moules-frites, or poached in Guinness, or steamed in a terracotta pot infused with Spanish saffron or Indian spices, the mussel is one versatile mollusc. They are also cheap, sustainable and readily available at both supermarkets and fishmongers. So there’s little not to like.
Native British blue mussels have a dark, inky-blue shell and can vary in size from a petite 2cm up to about 5cm, and you may well see their bigger green-lipped cousins from New Zealand for sale too. Once opened, you can tell the gender of the mussel by the colour of the meat: males are pale, females are orange.
In East Asia, mussels are often dried and added to broths; in New Zealand they’re shipped out frozen; and throughout Europe, the meat is often tinned, smoked or pickled. But the purist will surely always go for fresh, when available. During cooking, usually by steaming, the shells open, allowing diners to pick out the meat and enjoy its almost seaweed-like seaside taste. Expect an enjoyable chewiness and a pop of briny moisture on the first bite.
Most mussels sold in Britain today are cultivated. Look for rope-grown, rather than dredged mussels. As the name suggests, these are cultivated by dangling a rope into the sea from a buoy or raft, on to which either wild or harvested spat settle. These slowly grow and reproduce to form large colonies that are harvested after a few years.
Rope-grown mussels have lots of advantages. This kind of cultivation is organic, sustainable and has minimum impact on the environment. Suspended in clean, clear waters, the mussels don’t touch the seabed and so don’t pick up grit and barnacles; their shells are thinner as they are grown in sheltered waters and so don’t need to endure stormy seas; and their meat content is higher as they are not exposed at low tides and so can constantly feed. They are also available year-round, although their meat is not at its best during the summer months, or during spring spawning.
When buying mussels, all signs of life indicate freshness: bubbling, foaming or the shell opening and shutting. The traditional way of checking that a mussel is still alive and therefore good to eat is to tap it hard. If the shell has been open, then it should close. If it was already tightly shut, then it should remain that way. Discard any that don’t behave as they should. Similarly, discard any with shells that aren’t open once cooked.
Fill a sink with cold water, and wash the mussels. If they’re wild, then pay extra attention, and change the water to ensure that all the sand and dirt is washed off. Use a knife to knock off any large barnacles that have grown on the shells.
As above, check that all the mussels are alive and discard any that aren’t. Next, pull off any fibrous byssus, or “beard”, that may be lodged in clamped-shut shells.
The most famous recipe for mussels is moules marinière: mussels steamed in a sauce of white wine, shallots and cream, served either with crusty bread or chips (or indeed both). But when using British blue mussels, it seems appropriate to stay true to their roots, and steam them in a dark ale or perhaps a West Country cider instead. You can also include them in a paella or a bouillabaisse, or for something even more exotic, try Tom Hunt’s curried mussels with cod cheeks and razor clams.
Did you know?
Egypt’s King Tutankhamun and many Roman emperors and centurions owned “sea-silk” cloaks made from thread spun from mussel “beards”.