It was only when I visited La Rochelle in France as a foodie teenager while staying on a nearby farm during the summer that I learned their most revered foodie there was the Irish sailor Patrick Walton who is celebrated in the locality for pioneering the craft of mussel farming by growing them on ropes a few centuries previous and hence the development of mussel farming there or its techy name mytiliculture as it’s called and of course it caught on all over Europe and worldwide thereafter. Later on when training in Ireland I asked chefs and foodies if they had heard of him and none had.
So when I was involved in setting up a mussel festival in Connemara back in the noughties I named a mussel cooking competition trophy after him. In Ireland he still gets little if no recognition but have a Google and you will get my drift. The French have not forgotten him and there has been plenty written about him there.
Now wild mussels just washed up on the beach have been eaten forever but these days be extra careful that you are sure the water they have come from is as pure as can be and most seawater would not be in my view. Mussels are filter feeders so any contaminants will remain in the meat hence the strict word of caution. Farmed mussels are specially treated now to make them safe for human consumption so they are your best bet.
Irish farmed mussels are some of the best in the world I believe because of our climate and cold waters and they often get forgotten as our oysters are so good too with them getting all the attention. Mussels used to be a hassle to prepare but now they have the machines to not only clean but debeard them too so they are all ready for a pot when you buy them.
When they are fresh and cooked properly they are divine and it is the season now to really appreciate them. They are cheap and so good for your health with protein and fibre, zinc, iron and vitamins and without many calories. They are especially good for heart health.
Now they can be dangerous again if not treated right, they should always be closed so never use them if they have opened. There will always be a few that open up in transit. Cooking wise they are so easy to make. A big pot and a diced onion fried in a knob of butter for a minute then in with a splash of any white wine and finally your mussels. Slap on the lid and leave on a high heat until all the shells have opened which can be around five minutes and give them a couple of stirs during the cooking. Allow about fifty per portion. This is your basic moules mariniere you will see on menus.
Then scoop them out into a big serving dish and let the remaining drained juices boil right down in the pot to a thick syrupy consistency, add a dash of cream, boil a bit longer then finish the thickened sauce with some chopped parsley and pour it over the mussels. The sauce or mussels need no salt but maybe a dash of white pepper if you fancy it. You do not want a swimming pool of watery sauce in the bottom of serving dish when you are finished, a mistake most places still make.
Eat with some crusty warm bread and a glass of white wine and you will have a right seafood treat. There should be no sauce left at the end just a mountain of shells when you are done.
Now as shellfish is one of the more severe allergens you have to be careful that you may not have an intolerance to them. If you have ever had any adverse reaction to seafood and shellfish in particular in the past then you might want to get it checked out before you lash into a big bowl of streaming mussels.
There are plenty of other recipes for stuffing them and grilling them and they are edible while raw like oysters but it is not as advised for the reasons mentioned. They are the national dish of Belgium of course where they serve them with chips and mayonnaise. Each to their own I say.
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