I ate my first mussel in France when I was 16 years old and have loved them ever since. I’d like to say it was a Proustian madeleine moment, and that I remember every detail but I’d be lying. However, I do remember that since it was my first trip abroad I spent the whole trip, from Alsace to the Atlantic, revelling in the food. Apart from my first mussel, I also ate my first crab, lobster and snail. If it wasn’t for swimming in the sea I’d probably have taken home a few extra kilos.
Since then I’ve loved shellfish though I rarely cook it for myself, especially not crab and lobster. I think it’s partly the cooking method that puts me off (I’m no vegetarian but there’s something a bit too upsetting about watching crustaceans about to be plunged into boiling water and, yes, I know that a mussel is just as alive when it’s cooked but it doesn’t have eyes does it? Not ones that look at you anyway) but also the price: anything that starts off grey and ends up pink is usually prohibitively expensive. However, at the farmers’ market the other day the fishmonger had big bags of mussels: two kilos for £6. Since nearly every other organic, free-range, hand-reared, mollycoddled protein source requires a second mortgage these days, the mussels seemed like a bargain. They are also perfect ‘chop, stir, grate’ food: fast, easy and requiring very few other ingredients to turn them into dinner. Served with a loaf of good bread, a bottle of Muscadet and a bit of imagination, you could almost be transported from Finsbury Park to France. Okay, with lots of imagination.
(adapted from Delia Smith’s Complete Cookery Course)
You will need (for 2)
2 kilos of mussels
a good lump of butter (about 40g should do it)
1 or 2 cloves of garlic, peeled and finely chopped
couple of spring onions, 3 or 4 shallots or a small white onion, trimmed/peeled and chopped
150ml dry white wine (mussels in France are often served and cooked with something like Muscadet)
100ml crème fraîche (you can use single or double cream instead but crème fraîche is less likely to ‘split’ when added)
good handful flat-leafed parsley, chopped
sea salt and freshly ground pepper
1. First, the tedious bit: wash and de-beard the mussels. Fill a (clean) sink/bowl up with cold water and wash the mussels in several changes of water until the water looks really clean. Throw away any mussels that float or are broken or already open (they’re dead and therefore not very good for you). Once the mussels are thoroughly washed of any loose dirt take a sharp knife and scrape off the more stubborn stuff: barnacles, other small shells attached to their larger shells and the beard. This might seem like a pain but remember that whatever is left on the shell will cook into your sauce so it’s best to be thorough.
De-bearding is quite simple. Some, but not all of the shells, will have what looks like a small bit of seaweed sticking out of them: the beard. If you pull it sharply it should come out/off. See below for an illustration.
Once you’ve done all that, wash the mussels again and then leave them in a sink or bowl full of cold water whilst you do the rest.
2. Heat a lump of butter in a large pan (one with a lid)…
4. Once the liquid is hot/simmering rapidly, throw in the mussels. Cover the pot with a lid and cook for about 4-5 minutes on a medium heat (you can lift the lid to check them and shake the pot a few times if you want but, unless you have the heat at full blast, they should be fine).
5. After 4-5 minutes check the mussels (if you haven’t already); most of the shells should have opened but if there are lots left cook for a few more minutes. When they are all open (as far as you can see to the bottom of the pot…) start lifting out the opened mussels (this time chuck away any that haven’t opened up) and put them in another large pot (or bowl, something with a lid, to keep them warm) whilst you finish off the sauce.
6. Bring the cooking liquid to a boil and reduce by half. Then stir in the cream and mix/whisk into the wine/onion liquid. Bubble up for a minute or two until all well combined then season with salt and pepper, chuck in the mussels, throw on the parsley and serve with good bread, white wine and company.