Male mussels are paler than female ones and do not have such a strong taste.
A mussel farm
The Shetland Isles, halfway to the Arctic circle, the furthest point north in Britain, is nearer to Scandinavia than anywhere else. The people speak with a Pictish lilt, although they attempt to straighten it out for a 'soothmoother' like me.
Michael Laurensen runs BlueShell mussels which arrive in our shops, scrubbed, in kilo-weight fishnet stockings of thick marine nylon, after being grown, like grapes, clinging to underwater vineyards. These mussels are MSC certified, which is a global guarantee of sustainably sourced seafood. The mussels are raised in sheltered 'voes' or inlets, and at times when the weather was too severe to venture out to sea, or the small amount of fertile land upon which they could grow crops, failed, mussels and crabs were the reason that Shetland did not starve. Fish and seafood from cold waters are the best. Spain buys most of the Shetland crabs: they know their shellfish.
Mussels are fertile: just six could produce enough sperm (both male and female, white and orange) into the water to populate all of Shetland. Looking at the shells, ridges indicate times of stress (transplantation for instance); you can count the years, as in trees. They grow less in winter. The mussels are harvested at three years old.
The Belgians have moules et frites as their national dish. With crusty bread or chips to mop up the liquor, it is poor mans food, cheap and tasty but, in England, somehow still exotic. People are often nervous of cooking with mussels so here are some tips and a couple of recipes.
Tips for cooking with Mussels:
- Chuck out the broken shells
- Chuck the ones that don't close when raw
- Chuck the ones that don't open once cooked
- Mussels should be de-bearded no more than 30 minutes before cooking
- Rinse in cold water then keep them in the fridge, covered with a damp cloth, for up to three days.
- The simplest way to cook them is, as above, a quick rinse in cold water, drain, then cook them in a lidded pot for six minutes. They don't need liquid, there is enough in the shells.
Recipe for Thai style mussels
Enough for 3-4 people
1 kilo of cleaned mussels
1 red birds eye chilli, de-seeded, finely chopped
1/2 can of good quality coconut milk (no stabilisers)
2 spring onions, finely sliced
1 inch of fresh ginger, peeled, diced
1 large clove garlic, finely crushed
A handful of fresh coriander, chopped
Wedge of fresh lime
Place the mussels into a deep saucepan which has a tightly fitting lid. Add all of the other ingredients on top, but reserve half the coriander and the lime for garnishing. Put the lid on the pan and heat. Every so often jiggle the pan. After six minutes, your supper is cooked!
Recipe for grilled mussels with persillade and Parmesan
I had this all the time when I was in Chile. It's also a dish that the Parisian restaurant Le pied de cochon, aux Halles, does very well. I used to be taken there, when I was broke and living in Paris, as a treat, by my mother, on her occasional visits. We'd sit in the Art Nouveau interior and order these, tipping the ebony tear drop shells into our mouths, savouring the oily garlic sauce, swigging back a syrupy yellow Gerwurtztraminer.
1/2 a kilo cleaned mussels
2 shallots, finely minced
3 cloves of fresh garlic, finely minced
A handful of parsley, finely chopped
50ml white wine
150g finely grated Parmesan cheese
40g Finely ground breadcrumbs
Sweat the shallots until translucent in the olive oil. Then add the garlic, and half the parsley, a splash of white wine.
First steam your mussels for six minutes, with no water or liquid added, broken ones discarded, in a deep pot with a lid on, jiggling it every do often. Take off the heat.
Carefully remove the mussels and prise off the top of the mussel.
Add the shallot, garlic, parsley mixture to the half shell containing the mussel.
Mix the remaining parsley, Parmesan and breadcrumbs and top the mussel half shells with the mixture
Place under a grill and leave until the cheese is starting to melt.