Spain produces more mussels than any other country in the world and although vast quantities end up in tins (Spain’s canned mussels are the world’s best) thousands of kilos are bought every day by professional cooks and housewives.
In restaurants you will come across them ‘a la marinera’ (opened in white wine on a bed of chopped vegetables) and in tapas bars they are offered on the half shell napped with garlic mayonnaise or with a vinaigrette sauce. They are also an essential ingredient in many kinds of paella and fish soups.
Most of the mussels you see at Palma’s Mercat d’Olivar and supermarkets are farmed in the estuaries of Galicia and a few are collected from the rocky shores of the Costa Brava — marked ‘mejillones de roca’. As there are fewer of them and they are picked manually from the rocks, they cost more.
But mussels are never expensive. They have always been our cheapest mollusc and they continue to be our best shellfish bargain even when prices are at their highest. You can usually get them for around €3.50 a kilo and as that amount gives two very generous portions, it makes a most economical starter — or mains, if you serve them like the Belgians and the French with freshly fried crisp chips and a mayonnaise dip.
Although the mussel has an ancient history — the Romans farmed them and they are the oldest mollusc in the Mediterranean — Britons and Americans (even those who live in Majorca) don’t eat them as often as they should. Mussels have had a bad press in the past and many cookbooks ignore them.
The Indians on the East Coast of America who befriended the early English settlers, wanted the mussels for themselves and told the new arrivals they were poisonous. That charge has stuck for 400 years and most Americans still avoid them.
Spain’s farmed mussels are reared in non-polluted waters and the rock mussels also come from clean sea shores. They are purified before they reach the fishmonger, but even so they should be well washed and cooked as soon as possible after buying them.
My preferred way of handling them is to give them a good rinse under running water and then tip them into a big basin of cold water in which I have dissolved 30 grs of salt per litre — which is the saline content of sea water.
I also stir in a good handful of flour and leave the mussels in this soupy liquid for three or four hours. Mussels filter water at the rate of 5-10 litres per hour so they will be cleansing themselves and also feeding on the flour. When cooked they will be plumper than usual.
After the mussels have been soaking in this floury salty water they will be easier to clean. Wash them under running water and pull off the beards. Those with broken shells should be discarded and any that are open and don’t close when hit against the edge of the sink should also be binned.
Scrape the shells with your oldest blunt knife (you’ll be less likely to cut your hand) and rinse them a couple of times under the tap. You will now have a mound of blackish-blue mussels that are very clean and shiny and ready to be cooked.
This is the moment when most people start sautéing finely chopped onions in olive oil and adding diced carrot, celery, tomato, leek, spring onion, lemon juice and wine. The mussels are put into this mixture and cooked.
This is one way of cooking mussels — but it is not the best. A fresh mussel has a superb sea taste you won’t find in other molluscs. It seems a pity to camouflage that natural taste with lemon juice, wine and a melange of vegetables. Mussels do not need these added flavours.
Decades ago I came to the conclusion they are at their best when steamed in their own juice and nothing else.
If that mound of blackish-blue mussels with only the water that is clinging to them is dumped into a big saucepan with a tight lid, held over a high heat for 4-6 minutes, the saucepan constantly shaken, the mussels will be juicy, plump and (most important of all) they will taste of the sea. I used to stir in finely chopped parsley just before serving them but I stopped doing that ages ago because it detracts from the mussels’ natural taste of the sea. This is a simple dish completely lacking in frills and mussels cooked like this preserve an incredible taste of the sea.
You must use a really big saucepan and ideally the mussels should be in a single layer. If the saucepan is overcrowded the mussels will cook at at uneven rate and some will be overdone — and that means they will be shrivelled, dry and tough.
The mussels — allow one kilo for two generous portions — must be eaten as soon as they are ready if you are to enjoy them at their juiciest and tastiest.
If you are keeping them for another dish, discard the empty half shell and put the other half into a deep plate, flesh side down. Pour the pan liquor through a sieve to cover the mussels in the plate. If there isn’t enough juice, use a little extra water.
Submerged like this, the mussels can be kept in the fridge until next day and will still be tender and juicy. But this must be done as soon as the mussels are cooked. If the flesh is exposed to the air even for a short time it soon dries out and becomes leathery.
When mussels are cooked, by whatever method, sometimes a couple of them don’t open, no matter how long you keep them in the hot liquid. Every recipe I have ever read, except one, said that these unopened mussels must be thrown away. That is sheer nonsense. I have been forcing open these mussels for decades and they have always been perfectly edible.
Only Richard Olney, one of the best food writers in the English language, told his readers that these unopened mussels are safe to eat. Until I bought his excellent Simple French Food in 1985, I was beginning to think I was the only person in the world eating these mussels that refused to open when cooked.
Richard Olney did not say in his book why these alive and perfectly fresh mussels stayed clamped shut when cooked. Obviously, like me, he had been unable to find an explanation.
I had discussed the matter with men who have been fishing in the Mediterranean for decades, with venerable old cooks, with marine biologists — and none of them had any theories to put forward. All of them, without exception, had one piece of advice to offer: don’t eat any mussels that remain closed after cooking.
In August of 1986 I wrote to a person who is an expert in this field — Dr J.J. Connell, then director of the Torrey Research Station in Aberdeen which is attached to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. Dr Connell, who has come up with scientific explanations for some of the mysteries connected with fish cooking, said in his reply:
“When one cooks mussels that are known to be fresh and alive before cooking, a small percentage fail to open. This percentage varies in somewhat unpredictable ways but appears to be associated with mussels obtained from particular areas. The phenomenon causes some difficulty industrially because the removal of the cooked meat from the unopened mussels is obviously rendered more difficult.
“However, the quality of meats from mussels that fail to open in a batch is no different from those that do open…it has obviously something to do with the strength of the hinge material and of the reaction of the main muscle when heated.”
So next time you have a mussel that hasn’t opened after cooking, carefully slip the tip of a knife into the closed shell and cut through the inner hinge. The mussel will then open and you’ll be able to see it is perfectly all right for eating. If by some chance it isn’t, then discard it.
When eating mussels you can pick up the double shell and pick out the mussel with a fork. But most Spaniards prefer to use their fingers to lift up the half shell with the mussel and extract it with their teeth and tongue.
Spaniards love eating with their fingers. When a Spaniard wants to say he likes something very much, he’ll say he likes it “more than eating with my fingers”.
I once did a huge greixonera of steamed mussels for Graham ‘Galloping Gourmet’ Kerr and he had an unusual way of coping with the mussels in their shell. He selected a smallish mussel and used a fork to take out the flesh from its hinged shell.
He then used the empty shell like a pair of tweezers to pick the other mussels out of their shells. It was a sexy and elegant way of eating mussels and it had the added attraction of being unique: I had never seen any one eat mussels like that. However, several years later I learned that the ‘tweezer’ method is the traditional Belgian way of eating mussels.
But whether you tweeze the mussels out of their shell, pick them out with a fork or lift the half shell up to your mouth with your fingers and suck out the mussel, you should make the most of this economical mollusc by cooking them more frequently. But leave out the wine and veg frills and steam them in their own juice.
In a lifetime of cooking I have only ever managed to cook something to perfection on two occasions — the first was a perfectly pink leg of lamb and on another it was a huge dish of mussels steamed in their own juice without the addition of herbs or anything else.
Another advantage of cooking mussels this way is that they are a splendid diet food. Mussels contain about 80 per cent water, 12 per cent protein, 2 per cent fat and 1-7 per cent of animal starch.
A dish of 17 mussels steamed in their shells (about half a kilo) is rather filling and with a simple salad and some fresh fruit makes a nutritious and low calorie meal. If the steamed mussels on the half shell are submerged in their own juice as described above, they make an ideal low-cal nibble when weightwatchers get those inevitable hunger pangs.
It’s a pity that such a versatile and useful food should lead such a boring life. Mussels spend their whole existence stuck to a rock — or a stake if it is of the farmed variety. It does nothing all day long except filter sea water for food.
Even during the spawning season the sexes don’t come into contact with each other. The female ejects egg cells into the sea water and these fertilise when united with the male’s disgorged cells.
It doesn’t sound like much fun, but it’s a most efficient way of reproduction: a few mussels on a rock or a stake soon become thousands. Mussels take about three years to grow to marketable size — at least two inches in length.
In Spain and other Mediterranean countries one can eat mussels all year round but in Britain some parts of the country have bye-laws banning the selling of mussels during certain summer months.
Mussels are so plentiful and cheap that they are sometimes called the poor man’s shellfish, a distinction that once belonged to oysters. They were so cheap that writer and lexicographer Dr Johnson fed his cat a dozen of them every day. And Dickens had Sam Weller in Pickwick Papers say: “Oysters and poverty always seem to go together.”
So in case the same fate befalls mussels, perhaps we should make the most of them while we can. Otherwise we’ll be kicking ourselves if today’s poor man’s shellfish becomes the rich man’s mussel of tomorrow.