March 4, 2010
Mussels: fast food that is good for you
They are packed with nutrients, cook in a flash and get the eco thumbs-up. What's not to like?
When Tim Lang, a food policy professor and sustainability expert, told me that we should all eat more mussels, my stomach churned slightly. Not since an ill-advised seafood feast in Calais at the age of 10 have I embraced a bowl of mussels with relish.
Twenty years on, I learn that mussels are everything we should be looking for in our food. There's talk of putting them on school menus, given their high dose of omega-3 fish oils. They're also packed with vitamin B12 and rich in protein, zinc, iron and selenium. What's more, they're quick and easy to cook - you can have a delicious bowl of moules in less time than it takes to rustle up a bowl of pasta or scrambled egg.
Then there's the issue of sustainability. According to Lang, while fish stocks are diminishing we have more mussels than we know what to do with. Mussel farming also gets the eco thumbs-up. Unlike other kinds of fish farming, no chemicals are required, there's no captive breeding and minimal intervention from humans.
In a seafood restaurant,Les Saveurs, in Exmouth, Devon, I watch as mussels are steamed with butter, leeks, shallots and chardonnay in under five minutes. Olivier Guyard-Mulkerrin, the chef and owner, adds the final touches - cream in the sauce and a sprinkling of parsley - while lamenting our lack of appetite for mussels. "They are not very popular, even my scallops sell better," he says.
ièr So why are we reluctant to indulge in this British bounty? Is it a fear of food poisoning or simply a lack of confidence in our ability to cook them?
Guyard-Mulkerrin believes we can be confident about the quality of British mussels, but then he is just streets away from one of the UK's finest sources. The Exmouth Mussel Company, recently nominated for Best Food Producer in the Radio 4 Food & Farming Awards, operates from the nearby docks. Its produce ends up in some of the best restaurants in the country from the Fat Duck in Bray, Berkshire, to The Ivy in London. But about third is sent abroad, mainly to France or the Netherlands.
So what are the rules for buying and preparing mussels? "Keep them cold and damp, but never immerse them in fresh water - they're used to sea water so it'll kill them," says Myles Blood Smyth, who founded the company with his wife Lisa. "Keep them in the fridge, cover them with a clean damp cloth and eat them as quickly as possible."
Only wild mussels, especially if you've gathered them yourself, will need a scrub to get rid of barnacles. You'll also need to yank off their beards - the byssal thread that attaches the mussel to whatever it's growing on.
Before you buy, check their freshness, says Blood Smyth. "Smell them; they should smell sea-fresh, salty but with no unpleasant aroma." He recommends agitating them, too. Any that don't close should be thrown out. At the cooking stage, the reverse holds true: throw out any that do not open.
Blood Smyth is confident about the quality of his mussels. He says: "Everything from the quality of the waters the mussels live in to the equipment we use and the purification process - which kills bacteria such as e-coli - is rigorously supervised."
He acknowledges that there is room for error between dock and dinner. That is why we should question supermarkets and fishmongers about how fresh the produce is and where it comes from.
"A decent fishmonger will take this very seriously. His reputation is on the line, just like ours," says Blood Smith, whose mussels have an eight-day shelf life from when they leave him. At supermarkets, you can buy bags of mussels at the fish counter. Blood Smyth recommends checking how long they've been there (up to three days is acceptable). If the shells are open, ask a shop assistant to shake them to check that they close.
For anyone not ready to deal with fresh mussels, Waitrose and other stores sell vacuum-packed Scottish farmed mussels that can be boiled in the bag or microwaved in four minutes.
The creatures in front of me at Les Saveurs could hardly be more fresh. They were plucked from the River Exe a few days earlier and then had two days of cleaning and purification.
Blood Smyth farms about 350 tonnes of mussels every year, with a focus on sustainability. I join him and his team on one of their boats to see the harvesting and cleaning. To bring up mussels from the riverbed, they use a self-fluidising elevator, a conveyer belt attached to the side of the boat, which is lowered into the water. It hovers above the riverbed, sending out shoots of water to dislodge the mussels and then scoops them up. It uproots mud and mussel but nothing else - unlike dredging, which trashes the seabed, and which Blood Smyth has helped to ban in the River Exe.
The process starts with mussel seed being collected out at sea and brought to grow undisturbed in beds in the sheltered river estuary - much of the seed would be destroyed by storms if left at sea.
Predators can be a problem for the farms - clouds of starfish can destroy a mussel bed in minutes - but leaving mussels to mature in this natural way makes for stronger, healthier mussels, Blood Smyth tells me, as we motor towards a floating platform on the river.
There the mussels are sorted into rope bags and then taken back to the docks for purification. They are put in tanks of seawater for 42 hours to give them long enough to evacuate their bodies of every last impurity, while being treated with ultra-violet light to zap any remaining bacteria. Only then are the shiny-shelled mussels ready to be packed with ice and oxygen and sent on their way.
The only time that harvesting stops is for the few weeks of spawning, usually in late spring. Blood Smyth raises an eyebrow at the old saying that you should avoid mussels in months that don't have an "r" in them: his mussels are in tip-top condition during the summer, he says. He is wary of old wives' tales and is particularly outraged by a suggestion that mussels should be fed oatmeal to get rid of grit. "Why would you feed a mussel oatmeal when it eats plankton?" he asks, horrified.
Dousing them with chardonnay and steaming them in butter and shallots, on the other hand, seems like a very good idea indeed.