A few years ago, we had a long weekend in the vastly under-rated Belgian capital of Brussels, famous for beer, waffles, a statue of a little boy having a wee and mussels.
I ate mussels three nights out of four, and on the other night I had a lobster, which came with a starter of mussels anyway, so really four nights out of four.
Aside from the statue and the waffles (both over-rated), we had an excellent weekend. Brussels is a surprisingly vibrant place, with some great cafes and bars. Everything they say about Belgian beer is true, and it’s magnificence is only amplified by drinking it outside on a warm night, watching people go by.
Back to the food. Mussels. Tricky little devils. Delicious, but could cause you untold harm if handled improperly. Mistreat a mussel and it’ll mistreat you.
Here are the rules:
- make sure the mussels are fresh. Ask the fishmonger how fresh they are, and look carefully for any nervous twitches or obvious signs of lying when he replies
- tip the mussels into the sink and throw out any that have broken shells (they’ll kill you) any that don’t shut tightly after a sharp tap or when plunged into water (they’ll kill you) and any that look a bit lacklustre or under the weather (they might be OK, but if in any doubt at all, treat them as if they’ll kill you)
- Wash in several changes of water and scrape the barnacles away with a knife
- Each mussel has a ‘beard’, a little tuft that once attached it to a rock, or more likely, a rope especially set up by a mussel farmer. You don’t want to eat this, so remove it with a sharp tug
Cleaning mussels might be tedious, but they’re cheap and the cooking is quick and easy.
Start by frying a finely chopped onion in olive oil in a very large pan. Add a diced carrot and a couple of stalks of diced celery. A few cloves of roughly chopped garlic add a depth of flavour too. Season well.
Fry the vegetables until they start to take on colour, then add a few bay leaves and all of the mussels, quickly followed by a generous glass of dry white wine. Put a lid on the pan and bring to the boil as quickly as possible, then turn the heat down a little and let the mussels steam in the wine for about five minutes.
The mussels will have opened up like flowers, each shell revealing a golden nugget of flesh. Some won’t have opened. Don’t eat them (they’ll kill you).
Stir in a couple of tablespoons of cream or creme fraich to finish the sauce, add a very large handful of chopped flat leaved parsley, then serve straight away.
There are other ways. Steaming in beer is excellent, as is using a tomato based sauce, but for me, moules mariniere is the best way.
The only appropriate accompaniment for mussels are chips and mayonnaise. Maybe a baguette, but nothing else.
Eating mussels is always a messy business. The best way to eat mussels is to use an empty shell as a makeshift pincer to pinch the flesh out.
It’s easier than using a fork, and makes you look like an expert.