Tuesday 10 March 2009

Mussels on rock and rope

Something I love to do when I'm in Brittany is to go mussel-gathering. The shellfish cover huge areas of rock, literally hanging on by a thread (the byssal thread or 'beard') and at low tide you're welcome to pick enough for dinner.* Of course, I'm very much a lightweight in the world of foot-fishing: real enthusiasts can collect enough varieties of shellfish for a seafood platter!

However, most Breton mussels are not picked from rocks but farmed by the bouchot method. Wooden piles are placed in the water, and in May or June, ropes are slung between them. Baby mussels attach themselves, and the rope is then wrapped around the wood in a spiral. Since mussels enjoy living between low and high tide levels, the large tidal reach of Brittany's north coast is ideal. After two to three years on their ropy home, the mussels are ready to be harvested.

Legend has it that the first mussel farmer in France was a thirteenth century Irishman, Patrick Walton. Shipwrecked on the French coast, he placed wooden stumps in the water and slung nets between them to catch birds. History doesn't record whether any passing seagulls were caught, but Walton did notice that the wooden posts were soon groaning under the weight of mussels. Mytiliculture (mussel farming) was born.

They may look a little daunting, but mussels are easy to prepare and cook, marinière-style. Soak them in cold water (this gets rid of any sand and excess salt), pull off the beards, and scrape away barnacles. Discard any mussels whose shells are open and don't close quickly when tapped. Now soften some finely chopped shallots and garlic in a large pot, then add a glass of wine and a scattering of herbs. When the wine is boiling, add the mussels. Cover the pot, and in a few minutes the steam will cook the mussels. When most are open, discard the ones which remain closed; serve the rest with their juices and plenty of fresh bread. (Variations include adding cream, curry, and other ingredients such as lardons and mushrooms.)

*However, do check that the area is safe to harvest from; the local tourist office can usually tell you. Mussels are filter-feeders so should be avoided where the water is polluted.

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