And thick and fast they came at last ….
Purists will note that it’s the wrong quote because The Walrus and The Carpenter wooed Oysters to their steamy end and this recipe that I am going to share is for Mussels.
I adore Mussels though it wasn’t always so … the first time they were set before me I must have been seventeen and we were on holiday, skiing in Andorra. Staying in a Chalet whose chief cook and bottle washer, not to mention bed maker – an early exponent of ‘free’ skiing in a resort in return for pandering to the every whim of demanding groups of holiday-makers – was our doctors daughter who had some name or another that I can’t remember but was always called Boo to her friends. Boo served up Mussels around Day-8 when the dozen or so of us had had ample opportunity to get to know one another and, doubtless influenced by the cheap Spanish wine flowing at the table, the chap next to me (really old … he must have been at least forty) regaled me with their feeding habits which in his view included sewage – the raw stuff. I didn’t try a single one. Which means that I never associate them with food poisoning. A few days later we dined out and my mother and I ate paté and suffered dreadfully. I couldn’t eat THAT for years afterwards. The Mussels waited in the wings until I met the second man I married. His mother I adored and we ate on our first meeting at The Beetle and Wedge which had just been acquired by a wonderful couple who took it into local (and not so local culinary legend) – they are retired now … am I really that old? But anyway significant other, the parents and I lunched. And she ordered Moules. I watched fascinated as she delicately forked the first into her mouth and then used the shells as pincered cutlery. Bread to dunk, no mayo nor fries it seemed like the perfect meal … these little orange jewels … to a fish worshipper. So I gave them a try – sereptitiously at first and then throwing caution to the wind gobbling them by the bowlful whenever they were available.
Every opportunity included a sojourn to a lovely village (one of les plus beaux villages de France, no less) in Wissant which is a few kilometres up the coast from Calais. It was the quickest nip-away – just a couple of days and a couple of nights. First night in this pretty northern village my eyes alighted on the Moules Frites notice chalked on a restaurant A-board. No sooner spotted than feet under the table, order in and I was waiting. They did not disappoint – steaming mussels and crispy fries, a glass of something or other, and then another and I reeled back to the hotel where my room looked over the moat. I was so pleased that with no booking that the hotel had given me a room looking over the moat. So so happy. As my head hit the feathery pillow and I closed my eyes, hands laid on my replete belly a duck started to quack. It quacked louder and louder and louder and I put another pillow vainly over my ears. Windows along the corridor opened and expletives were yelled before they slammed shut again. But all in vain. The duck quacked and quacked and quacked. In the early hours of the morning I seriously considered throwing myself IN the moat. The duck quacked and quacked and quacked. At dawn I got up. I pottered around bleerily and eventually mustered the strength to dress and wander downstairs for a pre-breakfast stroll. As I opened the heavy front door, the fresh early morning air and the sound of silence hit me – the quacking had stopped. I walked along the moat which had things floating in it. Things that had been thrown from windows – shoes, boots, bottles and cans. Ducks in flotillas were quietly making their way up and down bobbing occasionally in the delectable weeds beneath. All except one. Fast asleep, her head under her wing entirely oblivious of the murderous thoughts I (and clearly others judging by the floating detritus in the moat) had for her … à l’orange, avec cerises, confit – anything but another night of quacking. Which I duly got the following night before beating a hasty retreat to the hovercraft home.
Now it’s fair to say that I don’t live on the coast. In fact I am probably 350 kilometres from the nearest coast but fresh Moules are readily available. So I took it upon myself for the first time to cook the real thing. But I had a slight problem. I don’t keep wine in the house when on my own and Moules Mariniere traditionally uses wine or cider. Nothing ventured this is my recipe. And may I tell you it is delicious and I am not entirely sure what the alcohol is for – though those cleverer and more gastronomic than I will doubtless be able to comment.
To feed me for two days or HB² and I once royally:
500g Mussels – mine were cleaned if they aren’t you need to deal with beards and barnacles
1 onion – mine was red I don’t think it matters a jot
A good nob of butter (salted … I favour the Breton stuff with salt crystals)
Two or three bayleaves (dried are fine, fresh is prettier)
The leaves from a couple of good sticks of thyme (as with the bay fresh is prettier and actually a little milder so augment as needed if you grow your own as I do)
Lots and lots of parsley
250 ml Water or wine or cider
- Wash the mussels in plenty of cold water. Scrape away any barnacles with a short-bladed knife. Pull off all the beards and wash the mussels again. Discard any that are open and do not close when tapped sharply (I have to admit I was quite scared of poisoning remembering the fellow in Andorra all those years ago so beat them soundly and soundly again to be sure)
- In a large, lidded pan sautee the finely chopped onion in the butter with a good handful of chopped parsley until the onion is just beginning to soften
- Add the wine, water or cider or any combination that your palette demands and bring to the bubble.
- When bubbling tip in the mussels and forget any reference to The Walrus and The Carpenter because it will make you weep and feel like a murderer
- Shake and shake the pan vigorously every couple of minutes and lift the lid after about 5 … the mussels are cooked when they have opened to reveal their amber jewelled morsels
- Sprinkle with more parsley and tip into a big bowl to bring steaming to the table and devour (as demonstrated by mother in law above) with the freshest and tastiest white bread you have available and the self-righteous smirk of a person who has achieved a culinary classic and secretly knows how ridiculously simple it is
PS: The only seafood currently awarded AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée) status is the Bouchot de Mont St Michel – mussels that you can see clinging happily to their posts infront of the iconic tidal Island in Normandy that has it’s near twin in Cornwall at St Michael’s Mount. I learned this watching ‘Qui veut Gagner des Millions?’ (‘Who wants to be a Millionaire?’) which helps my French enormously!