Imagine collecting your own mussels on the sea shore and cooking moules marinières right there on the beach. Find out how, from Eden’s foraging expert Emma Gunn.
The Latin name for the blue or common mussel is Mytilus edulis, which means ‘edible bivalve’, and dates right back to the fourth century BC. So it’s not a new dish. Here are some tips on how to carry on the tradition by collecting your own mussels and cooking moules marinières.
When to collect mussels
Only collect mussels when there is an 'r' in the month (ie not in May, June, July or August). This is good for the mussels – as it gives them a chance to breed in the warmer months – and for you, because there are less likely to be bacteria present in cooler waters.
Don’t collect mussels after rainfall, as rain can leach toxins from the ground and cause them to run into the sea. Because mussels are filter feeders, it’s possible that they can absorb these toxins.
If you’re pregnant, avoid eating mussels – as with all other shellfish.
Where to collect mussels
Always harvest mussels from a clean beach, where you know that there is no sewage outlet into the sea. Filter-feeding mussels risk absorbing this.
Which mussels to collect
It’s best to go for larger mussels, which have most likely already had a chance to breed. That’s how to ensure the population is sustainable. But don’t go for massive mussels, as a smaller morsel of meat can sometimes be much tastier.
How to prepare mussels
Emma doesn’t tend to soak mussels like you might other shellfish, but she does scrub off any barnacles, pulls off their 'beards' (byssus threads) and rinses them well. Any that are open, she discards. And of course, once they’re cooked, she discards any that are closed.
If you do want to purge them, however, to get out grit and sand, place the mussels in a bowl of salted cold water overnight, and they will ‘filter’ themselves clean.
How to cook mussels
There are lots of ways to enjoy mussels. For example, you could grill or barbeque them for a delicious smoky flavour, cook a Thai style dish with garlic, ginger, chillies and coconut milk, or go for the traditional French Moules marinières. Here’s Emma recipe.
Ingredients (serves two)
- About 40 (foraged) mussels
- 1 shallot, peeled and finely diced
- 1 garlic clove, peeled and minced or finely diced
- 1 glass white wine
- 3–5 sprigs of thyme
- 1 small carton single cream (or crème fraîche)
- Knob of butter and a glug of olive oil (1 tbsp)
- Salt and pepper
- Melt the butter and olive oil in a large saucepan (which has a lid) over a medium heat.
- Add the shallot and soften.
- Add the garlic a few minutes later, so you don't burn it, then the mussels, wine and thyme.
- Pop the lid on and leave to simmer, keeping an eye on the mussels to see when they start to open. This will take around 10–15 minutes.
- Remove the lid and taste the juice to see if it needs seasoning or not, then cream or crème fraîche, just heating through but not cooking. Remember to discard any mussels which are still closed at the end.
- Serve with French fries or a warmed, crusty baguette.
Did you know…?
One of mussels’ predators – apart from us! – is the dog whelk (a carnivorous little shellfish which resembles its herbivorous cousin the periwinkle).
Dog whelks drill in through the mussels shell to devour the meat, but the mussels get their own back by pinning their predator to the rock with beard-like threads, so that they can’t escape – and eventually die.
It’s these byssus threads – whose main purpose is to attach the mussels to the rock, from where they can filter feed – that we remove before cooking mussels.
Short courses on foraging at Eden Project
Emma Gunn, a member of Eden’s Green Team, is running a series of one-day foraging courses throughout the winter, until March 2013. The foraging courses will introduce you to what’s available in our hedgerows and wild places, as well as to some easy recipes.
The day is centred around a guided walk of Eden’s wilder perimeter (where you’ll get to have a nibble), followed by a food sampling session back in the classroom.
Emma’s golden rules of foraging
- Choose easily recognisable plants
If you’re new to foraging, don’t choose plants that are easily confused with others. Some plants can be poisonous, especially mushrooms, so don’t risk it. As foraging guru Richard Mabey wrote in his brilliant Food for free book, ‘Indigestion brought on by uncertainty about whether you have done yourself in can be just as uncomfortable as real food poisoning!’
- Invest in a good field guide
Take along a guide that includes illustrations or photos, as well as Latin names. These botanical names can give great clues about the plant, such as its habitat. For example, the suffix montana means it grows in the mountains, maritimus denotes that it is found on the coast, halimus in the dunes, while officinalis shows that it is a medicinal plant.
- Keep hygiene in mind
Avoid picking plants which may be dirty or polluted. For example, pick from areas away from the road. Also, don’t gather from low down along a path, where dogs or livestock may have brushed past. Don’t forage straight after a heavy rainfall, when plants in the ground - and shellfish - may be contaminated with run-off from the fields, which can contain chemical fertilisers and pesticides. Always give your leaves, flowers, fruit, nuts and roots a good wash before use.
- Don’t be greedy
Remember, you’re sharing nature’s harvest with wildlife too, so don’t take all of it. Also, be careful not to damage plants. If you only need the leaves, don’t pull them up by the roots; use a pair of secateurs. That way there’ll be lots more to harvest next year too.
- Remember where you found it
Make a note of the lane, field or beach where you found the plant, so that you can come back to that hotspot next year as well.