A week in Fishguard: Harvesting and cooking mussels.
Last year, when I told someone I liked to collect and cook wild mussels, he suggested that this was a brave thing to do. Talking to others during our stay at the Lower Town Harbour in Fishguard it was confirmed that, although hardly brave, it was not common for people to do this anymore.
I am certainly no expert but I have been harvesting mussels where ever and when ever I can for a considerable number of years and have suffered no side effects- except for wet feet as I over stretch to pick that perfect mussel… Here are my tips based on nothing more than my own experience:
- Only pick mussels from well stocked beds. These will be on rocks that spend most of the time under water and will only be accessible at very low tides. Make sure you don’t get caught out by a rising tide!
- Only pick the largest. These will still be smaller than the farmed mussels you buy from fishmongers/supermarkets but they are none the worse for that.
- Only pick mussels that are still attached to the rock and that are completely closed. Any loose mussels, even if they are still ok, will be very gritty.
- Only pick sufficient for that day. I don’t know how well they keep in water but for me the whole point is to eat them as fresh as possible.
As soon as you can, put the mussels in a large pan of cold water. Discard any mussels that float to the top- be ruthless about this. I usually leave them for an hour or two, stirring occasionally to allow any of the mussels to float to the top if they want to. If you are leaving the mussels for any longer, changing the water will do no harm.
The next stage is very tedious and best done on a sunlit balcony with a glass of something close at hand. Tease out the beards and then scrap the shells with a knife to remove any gunge. Tedious, but worth taking your time over. Transfer into a fresh pot of water until you are ready to cook.
There are of course many ways to serve up mussels but I like to keep it simple with these very fresh mussels. The most important thing is to find a pot with a very tight fitting lid- you don’t want to add too much liquid and the aim is to steam the mussels open.
I add a nob of butter and a drop of oil and add some chopped garlic and onion. Cook gently and do not allow to brown. I tend to add white wine- 2-3 glasses- though this could equally be a light beer or cider. Bring to the boil. At this stage you could add some herbs- fennel is good. DO NOT add salt! This may be obvious but I thought I ought to say it. I don’t add pepper either as your brain can persuade you that the grittiness comes from sand. At Lower Town, along the River Gwaun, there is a plentiful supply of wild garlic-
which I added instead of the chopped garlic clove. (remove before adding the mussels.)
Bring to the boil then simmer until the alcohol has evaporated and the flavours blended. Add the drained mussels, turn up the heat and slam on the lid. The mussels will be cooked in a few minutes- judging when they are ready is a matter of craft- or hit and miss in my case. Keep checking and stirring until the mussels open and soak up some of the liquid.
Transfer the mussels into a deep dish and pour the juices over them. This is finger food- use the top shell to cut out and scoop up the mussels.The liquid becomes a tasty soup to have with or after the mussels. Do not try and eat any mussels that have not opened.
Due to the tides, the mussels were only available on two days: the first evening I had this as a starter with some quality bread. I reserved the liquid for the second night and added some cream and ate the mussels with some take away chips.
Satisfying, tasty and filling. Bonne appetit.