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They cling to rocks, jetties and piers in great numbers. Clusters of the little things sit there quietly filtering the salt waters that surround them. Slowly growing longer and fatter and, in this country at least, with almost no threat from predators. Yes, the mussel is a tough little mollusc.
It might not be much to look at, but this black-shelled little critter punches way above its weight when it comes to taste. The intensity of shoreline flavour these things kick out is incredible and a bag-full arms the chef with a weapon that can transform not just a dish, but a whole menu.
Moules Marinière is of course the most iconic way to prepare mussels and a fail-safe one at that. Steaming these little guys open with butter and white wine creates something pretty darn special. A welcome hit of freshness during the chilling winter months. Switching up the white wine for a splash of cider does the trick for me and gives a proper West Country edge to the dish.
The mussel is often used in ceviche-style dishes - raw, sliced up and lightly cured in citrus juices. One of the great tragedies that face the mussel is overcooking. They turn into a rubbery mess and begin to disintegrate. If steamed for too long, they become watery too. You need to treat this vibrant orange mollusc just right, no matter how rugged or robust they might look.
Back to that raw intensity of flavour, I’ve seen some chefs cook down mussels and blitz them into a full-flavoured sauce. This mussel sauce, which sounds a bit like a brand of a supplement found in a gym locker, is the kind of punchy secret ingredient that adds serious depth to lighter fish dishes and partners up with big flavoured meats like pork, lamb and even beef.
Hear me when I tell you mussel sauces and reductions are one of the best coatings for pasta. Lacquer your linguine with some of this stuff and you’re onto something serious. Mussels are also one of the few shellfish that can take almost any herb you can chuck at it. Tarragon comes to mind as being one of the favourites, so does coriander.
I’m sure countless cooks will have memories of long, boring shifts of de-bearding mussels one by one, scrubbing the inky-black shells of barnacles and grit, to be left with a sharp looking army of uniform jet-black shells. You can minimise this prep work by choosing rope-grown mussels which are cultivated on suspended ropes to ensure they don’t touch the seabed, where they pick up grit and barnacles.
As I know you’ll all agree, mussels give you the biggest bang for your buck with regard to flavour. They stand up to a whole heap of different foods and even when drowned in cream and oaky white wines, they still shine through as the star ingredient.
Look, it’s cold outside, and the mighty mussel is the ultimate antidote to the mid-winter blues. They are the comforting, hearty warm dish customers need at this time of year. Be smart, get a bag of the black stuff.