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Mussels


My kids love mussels, always have. There is something about the shell that transforms them from finger food into a plaything. A bowl of mussels provides endless entertainment from scooping up the next bit of grub to surreptitiously pinching your sibling, your fingers elongated into painful pincers. Their traditional accompaniment being a bowl of frites only completes the pleasure.

My two young epicures ate their first mussels as soon as ‘old enough to eat seafood’ appeared in the manuals on how to feed your toddler. I only realised what an appetite they had for them one rainy night, the last of an Easter break in Marseillan. We had hoped for fine weather in the south of France but, as the UK baked in unseasonal weather, we dodged puddles and donned waterproof jackets. Not to be disheartened we ate our last supper in an unprepossessing restaurant, Le Boulevard (2 Avenue de General de Gaulle; 0467772111). We had eaten here the previous night and had enjoyed it so much that we returned. We were amused by the Groundhog Day experience as the diners from the night before arrived and sat at the same tables. That’s when we realised the restaurant is part of an hotel. While my husband and I worked through several excellent courses, the boys each ordered moules mariniere.  The maitre d’, taking into account the small stature of the boys, then aged 6 and 8, suggested a half portion each. No they each wanted their own pot. They lifted the lids off those steaming black casseroles, ubiquitous in all French brasseries, known in French as une marmite. A kilo of mussels disappeared down each hatch, un, deux, trois.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Over the years and many French trips, moules mariniere gained the status of our traditional first holiday meal, usually selected after an evening stroll past the tourist restaurants lining the ports of every seaside town. With young children hungry and tired after a long day of travel, a quick meal of mussels has usually fulfilled its brief. Especially if followed by ice cream. One year, soundly disappointed by the tiny and tasteless mussels on our plates, we resolved to eat moules only in our chez nous restaurant.

And so our family’s mussel munching moved from a one night stand into a long term and committed relationship, kept vibrant by the ongoing exploration of new recipes which prevent bivalve boredom. For while moules mariniere is a dish to please all palettes there is much  delight awaiting those who add a bit of colour and spice to the simple silkiness of the plump mollusc. Surely there is little more enticing than tightly closed, glossy black shells, opening like a dancer’s arms, revealing their plump and meaty morsel amidst a swirling and aromatic steam. This seduction of the senses, the whetting of appetite, announces that dinner is a table. Much slurping and licking of fingers and plates before happy faces declare ‘that was good’.

I love the sight of mussels piled high at the fish market, being scooped onto the scale in an oversized silver implement resembling a small coal scuttle. The stall holders usually add a handful of mussels to the bag, knowing as they do that not every mollusc will make it into the pot.  I am somewhat zealous about mussel inspection and each mollusc is checked and tapped before finding its way into the pot. This way I have fed the family countless kilos of the stuff without anyone suffering any ill effects, more than can be said for some eaten in restaurants that one sorely regrets all night long.

I have noticed that the mussels that have already been cleaned are often smaller. On discussing this one day with the poissoniere, I was encouraged to buy the larger ones that require cleaning as they are meatier. Good advice indeed especially as cleaning simply involves a quick scrub and a tug of the mussel’s beard.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Some flexibility is required at the market as the family may have voted for one recipe before setting out to our favourite fish stall, only to discover that the desired size is not available.

But no matter, for while small mussels lead to meagre pickings when served in their shells, great eating awaits if the mussels are steamed, removed from their shells and added to a sauce which has been prepared alongside. Our favourite is the Mouclade, a rich and unctuous dish prepared with eggs, saffron and cream, along with a pinch of curry powder and a good splash of cognac and local white wine. My kids consider this to be the king of mussel dishes and as it is certainly one of the richest, we usually eat it only once each trip. Another popular choice for small mussels is a simple sauce of white wine, cream, garlic and parsley served over pasta. We also add them to bouillabaisse, to seafood risotto, and to seafood cooked in a bag. And on our last night  we now return to the beginning, the moules mariniere, a dish cheaper than chips when prepared at home, ready in a trice and all mopped up with hunks of baguette –  a dish with which to bid au revoir to the summer and to look forward to starting it all again next year.

ALL PICTURES TAKEN BY MADELEINE MORROW

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