Permit me, if I may, to spin a short yarn about our culinary history before I get to the meat of the story, so to speak. A long, long time ago, Sydney was a bit of a culinary backwater. I'm talkin' the 1950's here. Australia was taking in plenty of migrants but the dark days of the White Australia Policy were still ringing in sensible peoples ears - but gladly, that policy was for all intents and purposes nearing political death.

These migrants were in the main Greek and Italian. They introduced a new lifestyle to Australians, culinary and cultural. I shudder to think what this country would be like without them.

One of these fellows was named Beppi Polese. This Italian guy opened a restaurant located at East Sydney in 1956, named appropriately enough, Beppi's. These were archaic days for Australian cuisine - most people were eating grilled meat (lamb or beef) and lots of it. Beppi had a problem - to obtain a liquor license he needed the consent of his landlord, who was a militant teetotaler. To get around these strange rules, Beppi would serve vino rosso, or red wine - gratis, and in coffee cups to avoid official detection. Well, his heart sank - what did those Aussie diners do? They added sugar to their wine, thinking it was a mid-meal coffee!

What has this got to do with mussels? Beppi ate mussels in his homeland, and enjoyed them a lot, as his recipes attest. The problem, you see, was procuring mussels in his new home - at the time they were seen by Australians as marine vermin. They were unavailable at the fishmonger, so Beppi and his wife traveled 15 km north, to Middle Harbour, to personally collect the mussels for his restaurant.

How things have changed. What was once thrown away by fishermen now commands constant prices of $10 - $12 a kilo at the markets.

Mussel varieties

Mussels are marine bivalve filter feeders, which have many species around the globe. Two of the most popular edible mussels are the blue mussel and the green lip mussel.

  • Blue mussels Mytilus edulis planulatus are found in many parts of the world, and although they are commonly referred to as blue, they actually have deep navy to black shells. They are a smaller mussel, ranging in size from 5 to 10 cm. They have compact and orange to yellow sweet flesh.

  • Green lip mussels Perna canaliculus are correspondingly larger. As the common name suggests, they have a striking green edge to their shells, with a deep brown to navy centre. These mussels are much larger, ranging from 9 cm to 18 cm. The flesh of green lip mussels is paler than other varieties, yet still provides a full flavour.
  • History and cultivation

    Mussels were perhaps the first seafood to be domesticated. There is evidence of mussel beds dating back to Roman times, yet the first recorded cultivation was with the French, in the 13th Century. Larousse Gastronomique tells a picturesque story about the origin of modern mussel cultivation. The tale goes that an Irishman, Patrick Walton became shipwrecked near La Rochelle in 1290. The inhabitants of the area had an ingenious method of catching birds for food. Large poles were set up near the shoreline with nets strung between them. Sea birds were the main quarry sought after, but Walton noticed that mussels not only grew on the poles and nets; they thrived. He arrived at the idea of increasing the number of poles and connecting them with fallen tree branches. The French word for branches is bousches, giving rise to the modern French word for mussel slats, bouchot. Growing mussels on vertical poles, or ropes is the most common practice, yet some still use the common oyster growing technique. In France this is known as à plat, originating in Croisic.

    All mussels must be bought and prepared live. I was interested to note when I submitted a mussel recipe to E2 some time back; it was quickly softlinked to just say no, that shit is poison. This disgruntled noder has obviously consumed a bad mussel - and I feel for him, nothing is worse. Like all marine filter feeders, mussels must be treated with a certain amount of gastronomic respect - there is always the chance of eating a bad bivalve, but that chance is not great. You really have more chance of getting whacked by a car than eating a bad mussel. However, it always pays to be cautious. When you are buying mussels, ask to have a smell. There should be no unpleasant aroma, they should simply smell of sea water. Take a look at the mussels. Are they open? This can be a bad sign, but it does not mean they are dead (and thus inedible). Tap an open mussel on a hard surface, such as the fishmongers counter or your kitchen bench. If the mussel promptly snaps shut, you know it is still alive and good to eat.

    Preparation

    Mussels need a fair bit of preparation before you can cook them. Whatever method they were grown, poles or slats, they attach themselves with a hairy muscle, which is called the beard. This must be removed before cooking, as it is not only inedible, but gritty to taste. Place all your mussels into the kitchen sink. Turn on some cold water and grab a clean scouring sponge. Rub the exterior of the mussel to remove any grit and loose barnacles. locate the beard - it will be on the fat edge of the mussel. Firmly grab this rope-like appendage and twist from side to side - laterally along the mussel. It will eventually come away with a satisfying give.

    Once you have cleaned all the mussels, you have 2 choices. Either cook them or store them. I highly recommend cooking your mussels straight away, but if you must keep them overnight, place them in a bowl or a bucket, covered with a very moist kitchen towel. Disregard any recipes that ask you to store mussels in salted water - it is too hard to get the saline level the same as their habitat, and you will end up killing them.

    Some enjoy raw mussels - I am not one of them. If you are eating mussels raw, please make sure they are super fresh, like collected the same day. When cooking mussels, make sure to cook them until they only just open. If this means you have to check the pot like a hawk and remove 1 or 2 mussels at a time, as they open - so be it. I do this at our restaurant when serving dozens of diners, and I urge you to do the same at home. Over-cooked mussels are a waste of time, ending up rubbery and unpleasant, yet if you cook them for just the right amount of time, they are one of the true delights of the seafood world.

    Want a recipe? Try this or this.


    Ouroboros made a good point, and one that I had neglected to mention. The long held wisdom regarding cooked mussels is to discard any that don’t open after cooking; because they are presumed dead and thus potentially dangerous. I’m gonna go out on a limb here – I see un-opened mussels as the tough buggers, those that resisted cultivation, preparation and heat, then still refused to open. I want them. As long as they don’t smell bad, or have any other obvious signs of deterioration, such as cracked shells or discolouration, I am game to eat them. You need to make a choice here – take the risk? Or toss the un-opened mussels aside – your call.


    Oh – and Beppi’s restaurant is still open, with Beppi Polese at the helm, nearly 50 years after it opened. This is a Sydney record, and perhaps a nationwide record too, making it the long longest owner operated restaurant in the land.

    In town? This is where to find it.

    http://sydney.citysearch.com.au/E/V/SYDNE/0020/20/79/

    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
    "Moules Frites"

    Ingredients:

    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.)

    Preparation:

    1. 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.
    2. 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.
    3. 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.
    4. 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.
    5. 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

    Mus"sel (?), n. [See Muscle, 3.]

    1. Zool.

    Any one of many species of marine bivalve shells of the genus Mytilus, and related genera, of the family Mytidae. The common mussel (Mytilus edulis; see Illust. under Byssus), and the larger, or horse, mussel (Modiola modiolus), inhabiting the shores both of Europe and America, are edible. The former is extensively used as food in Europe.

    2. Zool.

    Any one of numerous species of Unio, and related fresh-water genera; -- called also river mussel. See Naiad, and Unio.

    Mussel digger Zool., the grayback whale. See Gray whale, under Gray.

     

    © Webster 1913.

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