Belgians tire of shelling out to mussel 'mafia' European Times

European Times: Yerseke, Zeeland
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When the mussel season begins each summer, a fleet of trucks rush the plump shellfish from Dutch producers in Zeeland to food-lovers in Belgium and the flashier Brussels restaurants hire helicopters to airlift consignments for lunch.

When the mussel season begins each summer, a fleet of trucks rush the plump shellfish from Dutch producers in Zeeland to food-lovers in Belgium and the flashier Brussels restaurants hire helicopters to airlift consignments for lunch.

But this year a famine of mussels and an increase of a natural parasite have left a sour taste in the mouth of Belgian gourmands. So low are mussel supplies that the start of the season had to be delayed by three weeks. And, when they finally arrived amid the traditional fanfare, the price of Belgium's national dish of moules frites had shot up to 30 per cent higher than normal.

The French-language daily newspaper Le Soir marked the national equivalent of the arrival of Beaujolais nouveau with a full page charting how the mussels made it "at last". But the disgruntlement was underlaid by a chart listing previous crises, the subtext being the suggestion that such problems may in fact be a Dutch invention to rip off the Belgians.

As the price of mussels overtakes steak, some Belgian importers are even threatening to seek new suppliers. To suspicious Belgian minds the travails of the past few years certainly look fishy. In 1995, a plague of small crabs was blamed for eating mussels, in 1997 a salmonella outbreak was cited. Last year produced the novel complaint that Belgium's favourite mollusc was being crowded out by a rival so aggressive it was named the "pitbull oyster".

In the Dutch town of Yerseke, which can claim to be the global mussels capital, traders are unapologetic, but not surprised, at the battering they have received from the Belgian press. Delta Mossel is a family-owned firm with a multimillion-pound plant that can wash, clean and sort about 17 million mussels a day. Inside the fully automated factory, Olivier Camelot, a senior salesman, sighs and says: "Every year one of my best customers complains in the newspapers about the Holland 'mussels mafia'. Two years ago I went to him and said, 'Why do you do this? You know it isn't true'. He replied, 'If I say everything is OK I would never be in the newspapers'."

But even world-weary Mr Camelot is incredulous at some aspects of the media hype, particularly reports of the menacing "pitbull oyster". He agrees that 2000 was a good year for oysters but says he has never heard the term l'huitre pitbull and has never blamed high prices on them. Delta says the statistics tell their own stark story: this year Yerseke expects to produce 40 million kilograms, as opposed to 60 million last year and more than 100 million in 1999. So why are mussels in such short supply? Mussel farming is a highly organised industry and producers had been predicting a shortage for 2001 for some time. The process goes in two-year cycles with fishermen trawling for small mussels further north off the Dutch coast, then bringing them to the seabed off Zeeland, where the water is particularly favourable, to develop.

Two years ago small mussels were difficult to find, making this year's crop particularly light. In addition, many mussels have been affected by pocs, parasites that live on the shell and leave a white, barnacle-like deposit. They are harmless, but they are unpopular with consumers because they may drop off during cooking. With mussels in shorter supply, producers have been forced to buy more with pocs and accept the time-consuming business of cleaning them.

The season traditionally runs between mid-July and mid-April and, with the start date of 18 July looming, the producers' association took the decision to go for a postponement. A three-week delay during warmer weather (when seafood grows well) has allowed the average meat content of the mussels to increase from about 22 per cent to nearly 30 per cent.

But the shortages in Zeeland have hurt Belgium hardest of any market. The Dutch producers concentrate on the highest-quality mussels, those with large, white meat (not the orange flesh seen in lower-quality mussels) and at least 60 per cent of their output heads south across the Belgian border.

Willy Van Damme, Delta's office manager, says: "People in Holland will not pay those prices. They tend to want cheaper food and the Belgians like to have very high quality food."

The good news is that, based on the current stocks, the prognosis for next year is good, provided bad storms do not intervene. The producers say that, because of their auction system, that will mean lower prices, though whether the retailers and restaurants will pass them on to customers is another matter.

But the best advice seems to come from Le Soir: " Bon appétit all the same," it told its mussel-loving readers. "And wait for indigestion when you contemplate the price of your meal."