Candes Saint-Martin, my favourite spot in La Touraine.

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Mussels from Brussels

...and I don’t mean our Belgian Hollywood star Jean-Claude Vandamme, also known as ‘Muscles from Brussels'.

Under the caption If it’s Tuesday, this must be Belgium, I would like to tell you about one of the great traditional Belgian dishes (here I go again, writing about food!): ‘Moules Marinières’ or ‘mussels seaman’s style’.

Nowadays you can get mussels all year round. They are mostly imported from Ireland, Denmark, Spain or France. The French variety is called ‘moules bouchots’ or ‘moules de cordes’ as they are grown on stakes or cords standing or hanging in the water. They are usually slightly smaller than the traditional mussels.

The best mussels, however, come from Holland, where they are grown in so-called metal ‘mussel cages” in the Oosterschelde, a section of the Schelde River that marks part of the border between Belgium and the Netherlands. The Dutch mussels are available from July till April. Real mussel lovers only swear by these Dutch mussels and are ready to wait until they become available. I’m one of them!

Traditionally, restaurants and fishmongers would start selling mussels on July 20th, the eve of Belgium’s national holiday. Over the last ten years or so, Dutch mussel growers market their crop as soon as the mussels have reached the required size and weight. Depending on the weather conditions, this can vary from the second half of June till the 15th of August. This year they were particularly early, and I had my first pot of mussels on June 26th.

Lots of restaurants specialize in mussels and serve them in different ways. Raw presented on their half shell, not unlike oysters (at some point in history mussels were nicknamed ‘the poor man’s oyster') they are called ‘moules parquées’ (parked mussels)! Stuffed with garlic butter and grilled they become ‘moules à l’escargot’. But the most popular way to eat them is seaman’s way or ‘moules marinières’.

A steaming pot of freshly cooked 'Moules Marinières'.

I made some the other day for my mother and my friend. This is how I prepared them.

Count 1 kg of mussels per person. Wash them thoroughly in ample water to remove all algae and sand. Change the water two or three times and repeat the washing process.

Take a large pot, put in a tablespoon of butter and let it melt. Don’t let it get brown. Then put in a first layer of mussels. Throw a layer of chopped celery stalks and leaves, parsley and roughly chopped onion on top of the mussels. Add a generous dash of freshly ground pepper and very little salt (use special mussel mixture if you can get it). Continue by putting in another layer of mussels, followed by a layer of vegetables, pepper and salt, and so on until you’ve used up all the mussels. You can use one big pot, serving several people or make individual portions of 1 kg, according to your guests’ appetite.

Put the lid on the pot and bring it to a boil. After two minutes pick up the pot – be careful not to burn yourself as it is very hot – using oven mittens or a thick kitchen towel and firmly hold the lid down while you vigorously shake the pot up and down. This way the mussels at the bottom of the pot which are in direct contact with the heat source will move to the top and the other way round. Repeat this three or four time, every minute or so. When the mussels have opened up, they are ready. Don’t overcook them, as they will get chewy and tasteless.

Serve them with French fries and a generous blob of mayonnaise on a separate plate. You eat the mussels straight out of the pot, especially if you have made individual portions. Whatever you do, DON’T use a fork to remove the mussels from their shell. Use the shell of the first mussel you’ve eaten as a pair of natural tweezers … your mussels will taste so much better for it. Don’t forget to give your guests a spoon, though, so that they can enjoy the cooking liquid. It’s delicious!

Use an empty mussel shell as tweezers.

Apart from the above ingredients you can add white wine, pastis, chopped chilli peppers, curry, fennel, chopped tomatoes, etc. You add these at the beginning. Before serving you can also put in some cream or cooked shrimps. However, the more ingredients you’ll use, the less you’ll savour the exquisite taste of the mussels.



Anonymous said...

Un delice !!!

ladybird said...

Anonymous, on dirait que vous étiez là! Martine

Jean said...

Delicious. We love them. Although I once had one that tasted extremely bad indeed (in a restaurant), the sort of nasty taste that lingers for a long time. I was unable to finish my dinner and it put me off moules for a while. I'm back on them now !!

ladybird said...

Jean, I'm happy to read you again after your holiday in France.

Eating a 'bad' mussel is one of the worst things that can happen. It'll put you off from eating them for a long time. I'm glad you didn't give up all together, because, when fresh and well prepared, they are indeed delicious. Martine