Hermit crabs were my absolute favourite. I would watch and wait for the inhabitant tentatively (they know you are watching) to crawl out and shift its house about. Very small crabs were dear to me, too, as were tiny, transparent shrimps. Anemones worried me because they looked sticky (and were); sea urchins were dangerous and therefore exciting; but even at my most reckless I wasn't about to pick those off. Limpets were a challenge to sleight of hand, but were boring to look at and didn't do anything. And then there were the easily collectable, rock-clinging mussels. Well, you've got to have a bit of black in yer pool, haven't you? It must have been a bit of a comedown to end up in a pale blue Tupperware with only a few pebbles for company.
Of course, the thought that I might be able to eat any of these creatures had not yet occurred to me; that came later, but not that much later, for I cannot have been much more than six years old when I ate my first mussels, on a camping holiday on the Costa Brava. They were huge and the blackest blue, but this time swimming in a terracotta dish of olive oil and garlic instead of my murky plastic bowl. I was at once converted, and the Tupperware became a biscuit container once more.
Mussels are still, for me, a winter shellfish, although those Spanish ones must have been farmed in the summer months. In Britain, mussels are good and sweet at the time when oysters flourish: in those months with an "r" in them (r-less months are for growing and breeding). Yes you can purchase mussels here all year round, but they are most definitely more plump and taste finer between September and March.
I would say that all mussels available at the fishmonger are safe these days, what with cleansing, irradiation and that sort of thing. Apart from the odd dead one, which will show itself by being open and refusing to close when squeezed before cooking, or remaining firmly closed afterwards, all will be well. Many mussels, particularly those sold in ready-measured kilo bags, have even had their little hairy "beards" removed, so there is every chance of your being able to cook them at once. (If not, just scrape and pull the beards away with a small knife.) It is best to give all mussels a thorough wash, however clean they may look, if only to remove any sand particles that may still be lodged inside the shells.
Moules marinieres, serves 2
I reckon on a good pig-out when contemplating this, the greatest of all mussel dishes. So allow a kilo per person and make a whole meal of them. The quality of wine here is important; it does not cook for very long, so any alcohol and flavour will not dissipate much. Use a reasonable Muscadet or similar, and drink of the same.
85g/3 oz butter
2 medium onions, peeled and finely chopped
12 bottle Muscadet or similar
2kg/412 lb cleaned mussels
4 tbsp freshly chopped flat-leaf parsley
plenty of black pepper
Take a very large pan with a lid. Melt the butter, and fry the onions until soft and transparent. Pour in the wine and allow to come to the boil. Tip in the mussels, put on the lid and, holding the pan in both hands, shake it around a bit. Put on to a high heat and cook for 3 minutes. Lift off the lid, have a look to see how the mussels are opening - it does not take long - and give them another shake, trying to bring the more opened mussels at the bottom up to the top. Put back on the heat, replace the lid and continue cooking for a further few minutes. Have another look, and give another shake. When it seems that most of the shells are open, tip in the parsley, grind in lots of pepper, shake and stir around before tipping into a large, hot bowl. Alternatively eat straight from the pan. It goes without saying that you may just need a little bread here.
Shelled mussels with cream sauce, tarragon and poached eggs, serves 4
This is a beautiful dish. The eggs are poached in the mussel liquor, which is then reduced and mixed with a little cream. Tarragon is perfect with eggs (a conveniently suitable herb with all fish) and fried bread is the soaker. Don't be put off by having to shell all those mussels; do it while listening to The Archers at 7.05pm on Radio 4.
The kneaded butter used in this recipe is a handy thing to have around. Stored in a pot in the refrigerator, it will keep for a week or so. Simply mix to a paste equal quantities (say, 110g/4oz) of soft butter and flour - just an uncooked roux really.
1 medium onion
2 tbsp tarragon vinegar
150ml/5fl oz dry white wine
1kg/2lb 3oz mussels
1 tsp kneaded butter (beurre manie)
150ml/5fl oz double cream
4 sprigs fresh tarragon, leaves only, finely chopped
freshly ground white pepper
4 slices bread, fried in butter until crisp
Cook the mussels in the same way as for moules marinieres, but add the vinegar to the onions and reduce to nothing before adding the white wine. Allow the wine to bubble for a couple of minutes and then tip in the mussels. Once they are cooked, strain through a colander into another pan or bowl. Allow the mussels to drain off all their liquid and then strain their cooking juices once more through a fine sieve into a medium- sized saucepan. Shell the mussels, checking for any stubborn beards, put on to a plate and set on one side. Now start to add the kneaded butter to the juices, whisking as you go, and allow to simmer and thicken for a good five minutes. Add the cream and simmer once more for a moment or two. Check for seasoning.
To assemble, poach the eggs in the sauce in the usual way, drain on to folded kitchen paper and then place each one on a piece of fried bread in a shallow soup plate. Add the tarragon to the sauce and tip in the mussels to heat through. Spoon over the eggs and bread and serve straightaway.
Mussels with coriander dressing
This is a simple recipe from my friend Rick Stein of the now famous Seafood Restaurant in Padstow, Cornwall. It was included in his first book, English Seafood Cookery (Penguin, 1988). Viewers and readers of his recent television series and subsequent book, A Taste of the Sea (BBC Books, pounds 16.99), will agree that he knows a bit about fish.
50 large mussels, cleaned and ready to cook
splash white wine
50ml/2fl oz olive oil
1 small clove garlic, finely chopped
1 tbsp chopped shallot
1 tbsp chopped fresh coriander
freshly ground black pepper
Put the mussels into a saucepan, splash on the wine and allow to open on a high heat with the lid on. Remove, drain into a second saucepan and bring to a boil in order to reduce the liquid to a couple of tablespoons of liquor. Meanwhile, check the mussels for any stubborn beards, and discard the empty half of each shell. Lay out on to a dish. Mix the rest of the ingredients with the reduced liquor and pour over the mussels