In Dublin’s fair city,
where the girls are so pretty
I first set my eyes on sweet Molly Malone
As she wheel’d her wheel barrow
Thro’ streets broad and narrow
(Chorus) Crying “Cockles and Mussels alive, alive O!”
Alive, alive O! Alive, alive O
Crying Cockles and Mussels Alive, alive O!
She was a fishmonger,
But sure ’twas no wonder,
For so were her father and mother before,
And they each wheel’d their barrow
Thro’ streets broad and narrow,
She died of a fever
And no one could save her,
And that was the end of sweet Molly Malone;
But her ghost wheels her barrow
Thro’ streets broad and narrow
~~ Irish Folk Song ~~
From the streets of medieval London to the baroque banquet tables of Louis XIV, mussels always pleased sophisticated palates. Today, these lavender-black bivalves still enjoy a big reputation in Europe. A few years ago, mussels began muscling in on the American shellfish market. And haven’t stopped since.
My first brush with mussels happened unexpectedly in France. Traveling through the flat countryside of Normandy, my parents and I, along with my 15-year-old son, decided to stop at a rather bleak-looking hotel. Little did I know that it happened to be term holidays for scores of British school children. I finally found a room on the second floor in a simple, but adequate hostel. The toilet down the hall, two single beds in the room, a sink in the corner, and not much more in the room, it wasn’t the Ritz, but who really wanted that?
The dining room, a large, open room, with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking a small parking lot paved with gravel, offered a number of dishes native to Normandy. But for some reason, although none of us had ever eaten mussels before, we opted for mussels. I thought we’d ordered one large bucket full, but we ended up with two buckets full of steamed, juicy mussels swimming in a white wine sauce. It was one of those long June nights, when the wine flowed copiously and no one felt the urge to hurry to meet anyone or do anything. Slowly and methodically, we opened the mussels, their little beards tickling our fingers, the juices glazing our lips. An utterly sensuous experience, even though the prime months for mussel eating range from September through April.
Ironically, during World War Ii, at least in diners on the east coast of the United States, Americans ate a lot of muscles, because of the shortage of red meat.
Fall, at least in the northern hemisphere, marks the debut of the mussel high season. French aficionados consume aver 100,000 tons of mussels each year, although Spain produces the largest number of mussels.
In the wild state, Mytilus edilus, or blue mussels, cling to rocks along the coasts of polar and temperate waters alike. But in Europe, where the demand for mussels is so vast that mussel farming predominates, most mussels nowadays grow anchored to wooden hurdles called bouchots. Of course, even though the ancient Romans cultivated mussels, a legend sprang up about the origins of this strange method of farming. In the 13th century, an Irish traveler named Patrick Walton shipwrecked off the coast of France, near La Rochelle. Having no way to return home, Walton settled down nearby as a fisherman. He soon observed that mussels attached themselves to drying fishing nets. An enterprising soul, Walton strung ropes near mussel beds in hopes that the mussels would grow there and not on the rocky shoals. The mussels did exactly what Walton prayed they would do, and the rest is history. Currently, modern farmers cultivate mussels for the enormous European market using the sturdier bouchots or another method, called the “à la plat” method.
Used primarily in Holland, the à la plat method bears many similarities to the basic methodology of French oyster-farming techniques: instead of wooden boards, “farmers” seed “parks” or ponds with the mollusks. There, the mussels grow as undisturbed by the tides as possible.
Once “harvested,” mussels end up in markets all over the world, where fishmongers sell live mussels or those preserved in oil or tomato-enhanced sauce.
Michael Modzelewski wrote of how M. F. K. Fisher approached mussels:
The maitre ‘d led us to a corner table. She and I ordered the Mussels Mariniere. I lifted each mussel directly from its shell to my mouth. Mary Francis didn’t begin eating until all her mussels were shelled and bathing in the savoury broth.
Naturally, the French invented a plethora of recipes and rules for the preparation of mussels.
Readying mussels for the pot requires some minor prep work, but anyone who can boil water can fix mussels that Louis himself would have loved. Cooks must first “beard,” that is, scrub, the mussels with a stiff brush to remove the fibers and other foreign matter attached to the mussel’s bruise-colored shell. Cleaned, live mussels keep well in a closed container in the refrigerator for up to two days on ice. As with other shellfish, live mussels close their shells when tapped. Otherwise, the mussels bode ill for eating and cooking. Never eat cooked mussels whose shells appear at the table unopened.
And what’s more, with their extremely delicate and tangy flavor, mussels can be substituted for oysters or clams in many recipes.* Or muscle into mussel cooking with the following recipes. Be sure to find the best bread you can, to dip into the succulent juice.
*Note: Unlike oysters and clams, mussels CANNOT be eaten raw.
4 garlic cloves, mashed and minced
¼ bunch parsley sprigs, about 6-8
Pinch dried thyme
2 quarts live mussels, washed and brushed
6 T. olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 cup white wine (Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, or Chablis Blanc)
¼ cup parsley, chopped
Put the garlic, parsley sprigs, thyme, mussels, 3 T. olive oil, and pepper into a large pot. Pour in the wine, cover the pot, and let steam until mussels open. Throw away immediately any mussels that do not open.
Remove mussels and place in large warm soup tureen or other similar dish. Add the remaining olive oil and chopped parsley to the cook pot, taste, and adjust seasoning. Pour sauce over the mussels and serve with firm, crusty French bread.
MARINER’S MUSSEL SALAD
Mussels from “Mariner’s Mussels,” above, drained and removed from
1 garlic clove, mashed
1 t. salt
2 T. red wine vinegar
5 T. olive oil
1 t. Dijon mustard
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
½ t. dried basil leaves
Lettuce leaves, shredded
Arrange the lettuce on a plate, mix the vinaigrette ingredients, and pour vinaigrette over mussels in a mixing bowl. Toss. Arrange mussels on lettuce.
Garnish mussels with the tomatoes, capers, and a sprinkling of paprika.
MARINER’S MUSTARD MUSSELS
Makes 24 appetizers
24 live mussels, cooked as for “Mariner’s Mussels,” drained and shelled
6 T. mussel broth
2 t. lemon juice
3 T. olive oil
3 T. Dijon mustard
Romaine lettuce leaves
Arrange lettuce leaves flat on a plate. Place mussels on leaves in an attractive pattern.
Mix sauce ingredients until thickened and pour over the mussels. Garnish with thinly shredded lettuce leaves.
NUTRITION NOTES: Mussels provide good-quality protein, vitamins, calcium, iron, iodine, selenium, and only 2% fat. A 3 ½ oz. serving of mussels (without additional seasoning or ingredients) yields 80 calories. Sodium content of mussels is 289 mg for a 3 ½ oz. serving. To serve one person, provide 8-12 mussels in the shell.
FOR MORE ABOUT MUSSELS: The Great Mussel and Clam Cookbook, by Whitecap Books (2002).
And for the music to the song, “Molly Malone,” watch The Dubliners perform it:
© 2008 C. Bertelsen