The Modest Mollusc
Mussels are the middle children of the mollusc family. They are the “other” local mollusc. (Check out the underside of most docks and rocks in New England, you locavores!) Elegant oysters overshadow the modest mussel, gutsy, smoky flavor-bombs that they are. Oysters, frankly, have much better PR. Fantastic PR. Oysters get all the glamorous cameos in movies, (call it product placement); they beckon appealing from sparkling raw bars; and get served with exceptional drama. Oysters have their own festivals and special events, and even have a line of branded cutlery. Ever heard of a mussels fork? No, I didn’t think so. And diners, like chi-chi customers at a cheese counter, like to sample the oyster from this creek or that, comparing flavors and plumpness as if they were taste-testing farmhouse cheddars. Like everyone else, I’m an oyster fan, but the modest mussel needs at least one charter member of its booster club. Plus, the mussel is under assault. Zebra mussels are invading local lakes and ponds. We have to fight back.
Here’s the major marketing problem for mussels: You can’t eat them raw. Smoked or steamed, or sautéed, they are first rate. But never on a raw bar. “Oysters get the front row seat, because they are raw, and served with the whole magic of the raw bar, shucked in front of you. Alive and so fresh,” explains, Chris Parsons, chef/owner at Catch, the first class fish bistro in Winchester. Parsons serves a mean mussel. His mussel appetizer in lobster stock with tiny chunks of chorizo is reason enough to trek to Winchester, but he uses mussels as an ingredient in many other dishes, in a sole dish, with a swordfish entrée studded with chickpeas, and in a broth made from corncobs and mussel stock. The old saw is that mussels are in season during the months that end in “–ber”, from Septem- and Decem-, but the season is longer than that, especially for the Atlantic mussels. Prince Edward Island farms 80% of the fresh ocean mussels, but we do “farm” them closer to home.
Most of the mussels you want to eat are farmed, rather than wild. They do grow wild in New England, in clumps in the sand at the bottom of the ocean. The wild ones, Parsons says, are sandy, with dirty unkempt beards, and require a fair amount of skill to get them table ready. As the proprietor of a regional seafood restaurant, when he can, Parsons prefers to buy his oysters from Maine, from sources like the collective of local mussel growers who own a 10-barge collective, Pemaquid Mussel Farms. These “farmers” specialize in a Spanish form of high volume mussel “farming” that harvests mussels from a network of ropes suspended from floating rafts in the bay. In the season, mussels from Maine are harvested twice a week, packed in ice and shipped, fresh and squiggling, the same day. Parsons find them “plumper and bigger.” Given P.E.I’s dominance in Mondo Mussel, you’re more likely to get a Canadian mussel than one from fifty miles away. Don’t be disappointed. According to Parsons, mussels, unlike oysters aren’t as much the about the “terroir” as the preparation. French, Portuguese, Belgian, or Spanish-style, mussels are a staple at most Boston area bistros much of the year, simple and steamed, or fancied up with wine and garlic, or beer and butter. Oyster crackers? Phoo. Crackers are way too dainty for mussels. Give me a good loaf of crusty bread to capture each ooze of mussel broth, and as Chris Parsons says, “Get the aroma, then get down and dirty.” Take that, oysters.