We all know what AOC means when it applied to our favourite beverage. What else does it apply to? Appellation d’origine contrôllée is granted by the French Government to more than 300 food and drink products. It’s an assurance that what ever you have purchased has come from a specified geographical area. Well done the French – it’s an idea that I think should be employed globally. How many times have you seen a mouth-watering pizza advert on the TV (which incidentally, having bought the product looks nothing like it does on the box), only to discover that it is made by a corporate conglomerate in Germany! Appellations now cover olive oils, foie gras and even the humble potato. And Mussels! It dates back to the 15th century when the production of Roquefort cheese was strictly controlled.
British mussels are now in season and the majority of mussels available in the UK are farmed, rather than wild. Farmed mussels are cultivated by using floating rafts with ropes suspended on them which the mussels cling onto and grow. This method of suspending ropes from rafts was developed by the Spanish more than 500 years ago. The mussels release their seed, called spat, into the water and these tiny microscopic creatures either anchor themselves to the seabed or, if there is rope to be had, they will happily use that as their home. The mussels cling to the ropes for two or three years, after which time they are ready to be harvested.
Some mussels are harvested with long-handled rakes that were originally invented by medieval monks, dragging up the dripping shells until the tide turns and then taking them back to harbour. It's a trade that has altered little for hundreds of years. The only thing that is different today is that the number of mussel men is getting smaller and smaller, with fewer and fewer people learning the ropes as modernisation takes over in the form of dredging.
Archaeological findings suggest that mussels have been used as a food for over 20,000 years. They have been cultivated in Europe since 1235 when Patrick Walton, an Irish sailor shipwrecked on the French coast, hung up nets in order to catch fish and found that mussels were sticking themselves to the poles supporting the nets. Mussels are a good source of selenium (which stimulates metabolism and immune system and protects cells from free radical damage), vitamin B12, zinc, folic acid, iron, calcium and omega 3 polyunsaturates.
My favourite dish using mussels is Moules Mariniere and this is a no-nonsense recipe as I believe the simpler the dish the better the flavour when it comes to seafood. We have collected mussels from the Welsh coast for years now and cooked them as follows. This can be risky so if you want to play safe buy them instead. Most good fishmongers and fish counters in supermarkets will tell you where they came from if you ask.
1kg/2.2lbs fresh mussels
1 clove garlic, peeled and finely chopped
2 shallots, peeled and finely chopped
handful of parsley, chopped
200ml/7fl oz dry white wine
Clean the mussels by pulling away the hair-like strands (beard) around the shell and scrub with a stiff brush under cold running water. Heat 50g/2oz of the unsalted butter in a large saucepan. When hot and foaming add the garlic, shallots, wine. Cook over a medium heat until the shallots are soft and translucent. Bring the shallots and wine mixture to the boil. Add the mussels, cover the saucepan, gently shake the pan and cook over a high heat for 2-3 minutes, until the mussels open. Discard any mussels that remain closed after cooking or are shrivelled.. Strain the mussels over a large saucepan using a colander and set aside. Place the mussels into a large bowl. Retain the mussel liquor in the pan and return to the heat. Garnish with parsley.
We usually have some good bread to mop up the juice as it is so more-ish you can not resist licking the bowl!
Château Saint Thibeaud (£5.30) is superb with mussels – it's a lovely crisp Bordeaux white predominantly made from the Sauvignon Blanc grape. It has plenty of body without being too heavy and offers a very pleasing easy drinking quality wine. It boasts a lovely pale golden colour with dominant and very refreshing hints of pear and citrus fruits. On the palate it reveals a rounded, clean attack on the mouth with a good balance of fruit and dryness and the finish has gorgeous touches of lemon. You can find Château Saint Thibeaud at www.bordeaux-undiscovered.co.uk.
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