As sneff mentions earlier in this node, culture of “domestic” mussels began in France in the 13th century. Today it is a very precise industry in various coastal areas of France, both in the northern waters of the côtes de Manche and the warmer basins (lagoons) of the Mediterranean.
Cultivation takes more than a year. Mussel larvae, no larger than a grain of sand, attach themselves to heavy ropes in April. The ropes are suspended horizontally under water between upright poles in sheltered breeding areas along the coast. At this point the young mussels are called naissains, meaning literally “newborn”. In May and June these ropes are rolled in a spiral arrangement around other poles and the mussels are left until they have begun to form the thickening of their shell. They are now considered dans la pelisse, or “in their skin”. In September or October the mussels are placed in long mesh sacks (tubes), and these are again coiled around wooden stakes fixed upright in the seabed. As the mesh disintegrates in the sea water the mussels are freed and attach themselves to the wood with the hair-like filaments of their byssus.
It is not until June or July of the following year that the mussel cultivator can began to harvest his crop. By this time the first mussels to attach themselves to the wood stakes have began to move a bit, often piling up on each other. These are collected and the smallest, still attached to the wood, are left to continue to grow. The fall and winter seasons are the period when mussels are the most plentiful.
The old warning to “eat shellfish only in the months containing an ‘R’” was not only for the protection of humans in an era without refrigeration but also a check on impetuous harvesting. Even with modern day food-handling codes, however, it is not a good idea to eat unopened mussels. They grow along shorelines and are often exposed to polluted waters, especially near large cities.
As can be imagined, there is an abundance of French recipes featuring mussels. They can be served raw or grilled, but are generally first cooked no more than six minutes in liquid, plain or flavored. This time limit insures that only the really fresh mussels will open and that none will be cooked to a rubbery consistency. After that the mussels are eaten as they are, covered with a sauce, or shucked and incorporated into a more elaborate dish.
There are recipes using a roux sauce, a mustard sauce, a béchamel sauce, or a sauce containing mushrooms, or saffron, or oseille. Mussels are served with spinach or with spaghetti, in a salad with avocado and grapefruit slices, chilled on the half shell under a blanket of spicy mayonnaise, sprinkled with chopped parsley or chives, in soup combined with crab bisque, and in the classic, very unadorned, extremely simple Moules Marinières.
Moules Marinières uses dry white cooking wine, but many other recipes use water and usually have one or more flavoring ingredients. A Japanese friend, who would eat nothing but seafood if she had a choice, uses potato water when cooking mussels. If you are going to use a pricey wine, its delicate flavor will be lost with the addition of olive oil, excessive garlic, and peppery items. Most experienced cooks use very little liquid, be it wine or water. As the mussels open they release their own liquid, which gives you enough for any sauce you make from the cooking liquid.
If I'm cooking for guests I'll do something complex like cassolette de moules au cidre (mussel casserole with cider) or maybe couronne de moules au riz et au curry (rice ring with curried mussels). For myself, I'm a purist : I like to eat mussels when I eat mussels, so Moules Marinières is my usual choice. But to tart these bivalves up a bit, especially with a mess of fairly small mussels, here’s a good and not-too-difficult recipe for fried mussels from an old friend in the Vendée.
Madame Martegale’s Fried Mussels
2 kilos of mussels
Glass of white wine OR
Glass of water plus 2 tablespoons of tomato paste and a sprinkling of dried basil
Butter ( I asked, “how much?” and she said, “enough”.)
2 small shallots, minced
Chopped parsley (curly or otherwise – your choice)
Double handful of coarsely-crushed breadcrumbs (a piece of dried-up baguette
is nice to use if you have it.)
- Clean the mussels as described in previous nodes. I personally don’t get too excited about removing every vestige of beard and barnacle from the shells because the cooked mussels are shucked and can be rinsed before the final stage of cooking.
- Cook the mussels in your choice of liquid, let them cool, and then shuck, rinse, and drain. Leave a handful in their shells (small and clean, open but unshucked) for eye appeal and for eating tools¹.
- Lightly oil a big skillet, put it over the heat and drop in “enough” butter. Start with three or four tablespoonfuls and add more as needed.
- Add the mussels, stir them well, then add the shallots, parsley and breadcrumbs and stir again to coat the mussels. Check the butter level; breadcrumbs absorb butter.
- Cook gently for 5 minutes and serve hot.
¹This is often eaten without a fork or spoon. Choose a small open mussel. Hold the shell between your forefinger and thumb and use it as a tweezers to pick up individual shucked mussels.
Les recettes des bords de mer – ISBN 2 908160 07 02
Le Petit Robert - ISBN 2 875036 186 O