Musselmania 2005: May the best mollusk win
by Kate Zimmerman for the Weekend Post

Ladeez and gentlemen, welcome to Musselmania 2005.

In one corner, we have the PEI mussel, the toast of the east coast: sleek, blue and popular, known the world over. (The crowd’s going wild!)

In the other, we have the newcomer — the BC honey mussel, gaining ground on the west coast since first setting foot in the local mussel ring in 2003. Wait, are its amber shell and its cocky boast that there’s “more meat inside” causing these boos from the PEI mussel’s supporters?

Will it be a takedown, or a draw?

“PEI should stick to potatoes,” jokes Robert Clark, executive chef at Vancouver’s high-end C restaurant, which specializes in West Coast seafood. He’s a fan of mussels from a number of farms in his region, not just the honey but also the Gallo mussels from Salt Spring Island. “The mussels here are just plump, juicy and sweet — fantastic.

“I think it’s the amount of nutrients, probably, in our water, how clean the water is, how much food is available for them because it just produces a really, really good product — much better than I’ve tasted anywhere else in the world.”

Them’s fightin’ words.

But with Canada’s tiniest province now supplying 40 million pounds per year of these seafood castanets to the rest of the world, Prince Edward Islanders aren’t exactly quaking in their Wellingtons.

For instance, Russell Dockendorff, of PEI Mussel King, didn’t even know there were any BC mussels until the Post mentioned them. And Allan Williams, chef instructor at the Culinary Institute of Canada in Charlottetown, figured they were likely just transplants from PEI. Nova Scotia and Newfoundland produce mussels, sure — but BC?

In fact, according to Vancouver’s Clark, there has been speculation that Atlantic mussels came west clinging to the ships of the first Spanish explorers, about 400 years ago. Nevertheless, BC’s own mussel industry only dates back to 1999.

It’s been pretty low-profile until recently, when the B.C. Mussel Company — originally blue mussel farmers — started boasting of the honey mussel they had developed at their farm off Redonda Island, on the east side of Vancouver Island.

The mollusk, which Clark describes as “one part Mediterranean mussel, one part Atlantic mussel and one part Pacific mussel,” is so named because of its brownish shell and sweet taste. This foxy shellfish isn’t yet available retail; high-end chefs are keen but they scoop up fewer than 100,000 lbs. per year. 

So who cares if BC tries to cut PEI’s seagrass? Not enthusiastic islander Williams.

“People are starting to recognize PEI mussels as some of the best in the world,” says the Nova Scotia-born chef, noting that gourmet meccas such as Charlie Trotter’s restaurant in Chicago now state proudly on their menus that their blue mussels are from PEI. “They’re fresh, they’re clean, they’re readily available, they travel well, they have a long shelf life.”

December through February is prime time for this rope-grown bivalve. They’ve fattened up for winter and haven’t reached the point where they are starting to “spat,” or produce reproductive seeds, which happens in June and July.

Clark actually hails from the east coast’s Gaspe Peninsula. He admits that he’d be serving PEI mussels himself (and likely singing their praises) if his restaurant were perched overlooking the stormy Atlantic rather than Vancouver’s placid False Creek. Most importantly, he thinks people ought to eat what’s local.

“Quality has nothing to do with the type,” says Clark. “Quality has everything to do with freshness.”

That kind of thinking is the real reason that C wouldn’t serve an imported bivalve on its menu, which offers items like one steamed mussel basking sensuously atop a solitary frite filled with garlic aioli.

The pots of steamed mussels that are a mainstay at Belgian restaurants like Vancouver’s newcomer Chambar (which serves the Salt Spring Island Gallo variety) or Toronto’s Café Brussels (which serves the PEI type) are too rustic for C.  Anyway, says Clark, if a mussel is going to be coated in, for example, curry sauce, it doesn’t much matter where it’s from.

Mussels generally are overlooked and underused here. Clark maintains that Canadians don’t appreciate what their juice will do for a seafood stock or the fact that, even for an amateur cook, they are almost impossible to wreck. Saffron and mussels are a glorious combination, he notes, as are coconut cream and mussels. But a simple base really lets them shine.

On that subject, Williams agrees. Start with a bit of sautéed garlic, shallots, white wine and lemon, clatter in a whack of mollusks, steam them until they are fully opened, and, well, Bob’s your mussel. Chef Williams would serve the little varmints with some drawn butter.

“For the true mussel lover, that’s the way to cook them,” he says — wherever the mussels hail from.

CHEF ALLAN WILLIAMS’
STEAMED MUSSELS WITH TOMATOES AND HERBS

2 lbs. fresh PEI mussels
2 cups chopped peeled tomatoes
2 oz. white wine
2 tbsp minced shallots
2 tbsp chopped herbs (such as dill, chives, tarragon and/or parsley)
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp minced garlic
1 tbsp butter
A few drops Tabasco sauce

  1. In a large pot heat 1 tbsp. olive oil and sauté the shallots and garlic. Add mussels and white wine and bring to a simmer.
     
  2. Cover and steam for 4-7 minutes, depending on the mussels’ size.

When the mussels are open, remove them from the pot and keep them hot.

  1. Reduce the liquid in the pot by one third, then add the tomatoes and simmer for two minutes. Add herbs, butter, Tabasco sauce, season with salt and fresh cracked pepper, and stir.
     
  2. Place the mussels in a bowl and pour the tomato broth over top and serve.

Serves 4.

MUSSELS COOKED IN PINE NEEDLES
(Trout Point Lodge Cookbook)

A meal featured in a CBC program about the Order of Good Cheer prompted authors Vaughn Perret, Daniel Abel and Charles Leary to “perfect the settlers’ technique of cooking wild-harvested mussels in dry pine or spruce needles. The flavour of the mussels is marvelous – just be careful not to get ashes on them! This is best done in a fireplace or outdoors on a grill.”

2 pounds fresh mussels, cleaned and de-bearded
About 2 armfuls of clean dry pine or other conifer needles

Arrange a substantial bed of pine needles on the floor of a fireplace or grill. Lay the mussels on the pine needles in a single layer, with at least one-half inch between mussels. To help prevent ashes from getting into the mussels, place a piece of fine-mesh metal hardware cloth or screen over the mussels. Then cover the mussels with pine needles. Ignite the needles at several points around the perimeter, adding more as needed to keep the fire going until the mussels open, 5-8 minutes. Pick the mussels out of the ashes and serve immediately.

Serves 6.

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