MUSSEL POWER

The humble bivalve has always been the poor relation of the shellfish family - and in Britain seen as somehow suspect. Now it is making a comeback. Michael Bateman reports
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WE BRITISH are notoriously shy of mussels. Is it that they flourish in polluted estuaries, or is it that they are, well, too European? Certainly mussels are to the Belgians what fish and chips are to us, an everyday food, mounds of steaming mussels in their shells eaten with chips (or, rather, pommes frites) and mayonnaise. And every Breton port has its moules marinieres (mussels steamed with white wine or cider), while the French Atlantic coast boasts its mouclade, a similar dish enriched with cream and a pinch of curry powder. In Paris, too, raw mussels have a place in a groaning plateau de fruits de mer. In Spain, no rice and seafood dish is complete without its garnish of mejillones, just as shiny black cozze will often surface in pasta dishes in Italy.

In Britain, we've been used to feeling ourselves lucky if we had a friendly fishmonger who stocked them. If anything, we rather expected to gather them for free along rocky coves at low tide, or slipping about on slimy stones at the mouths of tidal estuaries. They have been the poor relations of the shellfish family.

At last the mussel is finding its way back to the British table, and by no means as poor man's food. The nation's largest fishmonger, and many households' cook - Marks & Spencer's - has successfully been offering cooked mussels as a convenience food for some years. And now it has just relaunched its moules marinieres, to add to its moules bonne femme and mussels with garlic butter, and intends to introduce a dinner starter, gratin of mussels.

Restaurants too. Rick Stein (whose TV programme, Taste of the Sea, has been showing on BBC2 on Tuesdays) has made the mussel a prominent feature at his Seafood Restaurant, Padstow, in its own right or with other shellfish.

"Ten years ago if you wanted mussels," he says, "you had to find your own." He used to get some from Helford, on the south Cornish coast, persuading a local bus driver to transport them the last 20 miles. "He wasn't very happy about that. They used to leak all over the place."

It wasn't just a question of availability, says Rick Stein. They became associated with pollution. "Many estuaries have been badly poisoned and mussels are very susceptible. In Victorian times, the Thames in particular carried every imaginable waterborne disease to the sea."

Indeed, the Victorians may have been scared off eating them, as evidenced by the scant number of mussel recipes in 19th-century cookbooks (Mrs Beeton gives none); in 18th-century recipes, mussels feature in sauces to go with fish, to enrich soups, or in ketchups, pureed like oysters to make a relish.

You have to go some way back to find them in their pomp. In the 15th- century annals of a Suffolk country house we have an account of preparing a "wash of mussels" - about a quart, which had been sent up from Colchester. They were to be "stewed in white wine with minced onion and pepper till they beginne to gape". Excellent counsel.

The Venerable Bede, writing in the eighth century, refers to the pleasures of eating mussels, but it was the Romans who most relished them (and all kinds of shellfish), because the shells of oysters, whelks and mussels are found at most important excavation sites of Roman villas. Archaeologists, though, would point us to the neolithic evidence of our earliest ancestors supping them from the shell on the banks of the River Bann in Northern Ireland.

It was an Irishman, thousands of years later in the 12th century, who is said to have inspired mussel farming - or so the story goes. Ship-wrecked and starving near La Rochelle, on the Atlantic coast of France, he fell to snaring seabirds and eating mussels for survival. He noticed that mussels clustered on wooden posts, so he put in more posts and started to farm them, using a flat-bottomed boat.

Mussels are grown there to this day on posts (bouchets), a more desirable method of harvesting them than dredging them from estuary waters, where some of them fill with grit, sand or mud. But the modern method (copied from Japanese fishermen) is to grow the mussels on rope, as they do in northern France and Spain, and more recently in Scotland and Ireland.

Rope-grown mussels are also cleaner and safer than those taken from estuaries, which is why big supermarket chains are prepared to develop them. Are they tastier? Restaurateur Rick Stein personally prefers the taste of locally collected mussels from the inlets along the coast, with their marked taste of ozone and seaweed, but he notices the shells are very thick.

"Rope-grown mussels are larger, consistent in size, sweeter, and have thinner shells," he says. "They are ideal for restaurant-dishes. When you steam them, they open quickly, and all at the same time."

This is significant. Cooking time should be so brief as to be completed when the shell opens, a matter of half a minute in a hot pan. Leave them in their simmering juices longer, and they quickly become hard and rubbery.

In the UK, mussel farming is in its infancy. Janet Church, chairman of the Association of Shellfish Growers, pioneered British rope-growing of mussels in Scotland. She now harvests 100 tons a year from Loch Etive, near Oban, but she started literally from scratch in 1980. "I was picking mussels from the shore for survival, selling them to anyone who would buy them. At first no one was interested locally. Scottish folk call them 'famine food'. I had to organise evenings with Women's Institutes, work up recipes and do promotions to try to popularise them."

Once she and her partner had managed to establish a market they decided they had to learn the ropes - literally so - and hired the services of the Spanish rope-growers. Rope-grown mussels seem to me to represent the the acceptable face of fish farming and I had the opportunity earlier this year to visit a "farm" in Galicia, in north-west Spain, a region that produces 50 per cent of the world's mussel harvest.

Galicia used to be a very poor corner of Spain, but not any more. Vigo and other fishing ports land Atlantic catches that fetch premium prices in the capital, Madrid. There are massive plantings of the white Alabarina grape, which has become the nation's favourite wine to drink with seafood (imagine a tamer, fruitier version of Muscadet); and the rainswept hillsides have been densely planted with eucalyptus for the paper industry.

These same trees contribute to the great concentrations of latticed wooden rafts which fill the rias or estuaries (just as salmon-farming nets embellish Scottish lochs). Mussels are grown here in huge clusters, fastening themselves by their "beards" on to 40ft-long ropes that are suspended from these rafts made of 130ft-long eucalyptus trunks. The scale of the operation is enormous; there are more than 3,000 of these rafts in Galicia, each one supporting some 500 ropes. By the end of the second year, every rope produces a staggering crop of two hundredweight or more of mussels. (Thus every single raft produces five times as many mussels as Janet Church's annual crop).

The rafts are serviced by flat boats like landing craft, equipped with cranes capable of lifting these heavy laden ropes completely out of the water. On deck, a team of workers strips the mussels from the ropes and sizes them. The larger ones go to market or to be canned. The smaller ones are re-tied to new ropes, bound with cotton netting which will disintegrate in the water within a few weeks, when most of the mussels will have anchored themselves.

The rest is left to nature. These mussels grow in pollution-free water in the surging Atlantic, feeding themselves the way only a mussel can, that is, by filtering three gallons of sea water an hour, sieving out the nutrients.

The Spanish mussel is a large, plump blob of orange, the colour of the Australian national rugby shirt. In Britain we are familiar with a smaller and whiter mussel. But Janet Church says this is a matter of season. Early in the year (when the mussels breed) you find the white ones, which are male. Later in the year, indeed now, most will be fatter and apricot-coloured.

HOW TO COOK MUSSELS

The humblest form of processed mussel is the canned variety, popular in Spain in an escabeche sauce (olive oil and vinegar). By contrast, the grandest must be an appetiser conceived by Michel Bourdin, chef of the Connaught Hotel, in which steamed mussels, removed from their shells, are dipped into cold Bearnaise sauce to coat them, dredged in fine breadcrumbs, and then deep-fried. "In this way each mussel comes with its own sauce," he explains.

The Spanish do appetising mussel tapas, the tastiest of which are deep- fried on the half-shell, topped with mashed potato beaten with egg yolk, and crisped till golden (like a miniature coquille St Jacques).

Mussels en brochette are delicious too; allow eight steamed mussels for each person, alternate them with one-inch squares of bacon or, better still, air-dried Parma or Serrano ham, and grill. Or deep-fry mini-brochettes in tempura batter as an appetiser: allow two or three mussels to a cocktail stick, separated by squares of ham, dip in the tempura batter and deep- fry in hot oil at 375F/190C. (To make tempura batter, add 30ml/1fl oz beaten egg and 120ml/4fl oz water to 150ml/5fl oz flour, and beat the mixture to a cream).

Another very satisfactory mussel dish is a gratin with garlic butter. Steamed mussels in the half shell are stuffed with garlic and parsley butter, dotted with breadcrumbs and crisped in the oven. Below we give Rick Stein's version, using pesto instead of garlic butter, and taken from from his new book Taste of the Sea (BBC pounds l6.99). We also give a traditional Spanish fisherman's mussel soup from Maria Jose Sevilla, whose new book, Mediterranean Flavours, is published this month (Pavilion pounds 16.99).

GRILLED MUSSELS WITH PESTO

The mussels are opened and each is served in one shell, which is filled with a garlic, basil and pine-kernel pesto. For this recipe the pesto should be made quite dry and coarse, more like a stuffing than a sauce. You can vary your pesto using other green herbs, such as parsley or coriander, and other nuts.

Serves 4

60 large mussels

a splash of dry white wine or water

For the pesto:

15g/12oz fresh basil

2 large garlic cloves

175ml/6fl oz olive oil

15g/12oz of Parmesan

15g/12oz pine kernels

2 slices of white bread, crusts removed and

made into breadcrumbs

Wash the mussels in plenty of changes of cold water, swirling them round until the water is clear. Scrape the mussels with a short, thickbladed knife to remove any barnacles or seaweed and pull out the beards.

Wash again and discard any that do not close when given a sharp tap.

Open the mussels by steaming them with a splash of dry white wine (or water) covered in a huge pan over a fierce heat. Remove from the heat as soon as they have opened and discard one side of the shell.

Strain the liquor through a colander and pour off into a small pan, holding back the last tablespoon or so of mussel liquor, which will contain a lof of grit.

Reduce the rest of the liquor to about one tablespoon by rapid boiling. (This will be added to the pesto ingredients.)

Put all the pesto ingredients with the reduced mussel liquor in a mortar or food processor and pound or blend until roughly chopped.

Pre-heat the grill to high. Arrange the mussels on a grilling tray. Spoon the pesto into all the mussel shells, then sprinkle over the breadcrumbs and grill until the breadcrumbs are beginning to brown.

SOPA DE MEJILLONES

Serves 6

60 mussels, scrubbed and bearded

120ml/4fl oz olive oil

1 Spanish onion, peeled and finely chopped

5 ripe tomatoes, skinned, de-seeded and finely chopped

1.5 litres/212 pints water

3 slices bread, crusts removed

5 cloves garlic, peeled

1 small sprig of parsley

1 small cinnamon stick

I small glass aguardiente, eau-de-vie or brandy

salt

freshly ground black pepper

Place the mussels in a large pan and cover with cold water. Bring to the boil and boil for a few minutes, just until the mussels open. Do not overcook the mussels.

Strain and reserve the cooking liquor. Shell the mussels, discarding any that remain closed, and put them to one side.

Heat the oil in a large pan on a very high heat and fry the onion until it softens, then add the tomatoes and fry until it is thick sauce.

Moisten this with a little of the mussel cooking liquor and add enough water to makc up to 2.5 litres/412 pints. Bring the soup to the boil.

Meanwhile, toast the bread and dice it. Use a mortar and pestle to pound the garlic, parsley and cinnamon, mix in the aguardiente, eau-de-vie or brandy and add the mixture to the soup with the bread as it begins to boil.

Simmer for a few minutes, then add the mussels and blend all the ingredients together with a whisk or hand blender until creamy. Rub through a sieve if necessary.

Do not allow the soup to thicken too much; add a little more water if necessary.

Season to taste with salt and freshly ground black pepper and serve. !

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