Pulling beards from mussels is one of the most satisfying cooking tasks. Especially when you have preoccupations tugging at your attention. In fact, maybe “tugging” is a better word to describe the mussel task; tugging the wispy beard that pokes out of the shell – like a coat stuck in a car door – the bundle of threads created by mussels in order to attach to a solid surface, a rock, a quayside, pier-leg.
As a child, I remember being terrified by the clusters of mussels clinging like wild necklaces to the legs of the pier in Brittany. I would choose to swim 100m back through ink and shadows, alone, rather than climbing up and over the black-blue shells with the others. I also remember eating mussels on that holiday, opening the hinged shells to find an orange ear, being unsettled and delighted by the texture and pool of liquor, by the woman on the next table who got “a bad one” and was sick into her bag, neatly, which I thought was impressive. Even more impressive was how she left, came back to the table, dismissed any concern, and had a glass of champagne.
Memories follow you, as does advice, such as that given to me by a young man collecting mussels from rocks in Puglia: “Unless you are getting them from me, play safe and get your mussels from a fishmonger – but do get them, and eat them with rice.” While they may not have the alluring flavour of wild ones, farmed mussels are still plump parcels of flavour. They are also safe, abundant and not expensive:…
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