BY JENNI PERTUSET
PHOTOS BY LARA FERRONI
Common enough on Northwest tables now, mussels used to be regarded with derision. When Penn Cove Shellfish first took the mollusks to market in the late 70s, mussels were unfamiliar as food, and their appearance was uninspiring. “People would think we were delivering pails of bait,” says general manager Ian Jefferds.
The effect of that history still places mussels among the last of the shellfish bargains, at about $4 per pound. In the guidebook Sustainable Sushi, author Cason Trenor writes that “farmed mussels are one of the best possible options.” Mussel farming involves no bycatch, leaves the water cleaner, and does not impact wild stocks.
And they taste at least as good as their pricier cousins—they’re sweeter than oysters, subtler than clams.
Washington growers focus on two species of the mussel genus Mytilus: M. trosullus or Baltic mussel, known locally as Penn Cove mussels, and M. galloprovincialis or Mediterranean mussel. Penn Cove mussels are native to our waters, while the Mediterranean mussels are native to lower latitudes.
Both species thrive in nutrient-rich estuaries such as Totten Inlet in the South Sound and Penn Cove off Whidbey Island. They grow wild in the intertidal zone, attached firmly to rocks, taking in grit from the sea floor and growing thick shells to protect them from the pounding tides. Their cultured cousins grow on lines hung from rafts in deeper water, resulting in cleaner interiors and thinner exteriors, both of which make them easier to prepare.
Farmed or wild, one of the easiest and tastiest mussel preparations is moules mariniere, sauteed with white wine and herbs, but mussels can be prepared almost any way: steamed, baked, grilled, fried. A staple in cioppino and paella, mussels are equally good in Thai curry or a southwestern blend of chili flakes and beer broth. At sushi bars, they appear baked, as an appetizer.
A mussel’s journey from bay to bowl begins with spawning. After fertilization, the eggs transition into swimming larvae before developing shells and then becoming sessile. On mussel rafts, these newly-attached mussel “seeds” will grow dense on their lines, until workers strip and redistribute them into lengths of mesh around lines hung from the rafts. As the mussels grow to market size, plastic disks are added at regular intervals to support their weight so they aren’t pulled from the lines. When the mussels are ready to be harvested, the lines are cut from the rafts and the mussels stripped from the lines, cleaned, and sorted.
Market-ready mussels are available most of the year, though they are at their highest quality in the months prior to spawning. During spawning, they convert the glycogen that gives them their sweetness into gametes, and the meat becomes thinner and milkier. Penn Cove mussels spawn in the early summer, so are best from fall through spring. Mediterranean mussels spawn in the winter, and are best in the summer and fall. The species differ little in taste or texture, though Mediterranean mussels can grow larger than Penn Coves.
The bivalve’s size doesn’t affect its flavor—just pick the size you prefer for the dish you have in mind. Whatever their size, for the freshest mussels select ones that are tightly closed and have a clean ocean smell. Buying directly from a farm ensures a recent harvest. If you buy from a fishmonger or grocery store, ask to see the tag, which will show the date when the mussels were harvested.
Like all shellfish, mussels should be alive when you prepare them. To keep them alive until you’re ready to use them, remove their packaging, place them in a colander, and cover with ice or a wet towel. Don’t allow them to stay sealed or stand in fresh water (such as melting ice) or they will die. If they have their beards, leave them attached until you’re ready to cook.
Taylor Shellfish, among other companies, leaves the beard attached with the intention of preserving freshness. Penn Cove Shellfish, which de-beards their mussels, acknowledges that removing the beards by hand kills mussels, but Jefferds claims that removal by machine, which works like a “Norelco lift and cut shaver,” makes preparation easier without impacting freshness.
To ensure you’re eating fresh mussels, use them no more than a week after harvest—within a day or two of getting them home is best. Rinse your mussels before you cook them. As you’re rinsing, check that any gaping mussels close with handling. They might be slow, but should close within several seconds. If you have any doubt, twist the shells in opposite directions. The shells of dead mussels will separate easily. If you need to de-beard, pull the threads sharply toward the hinge. This may remove some of the meat from the foot, and if you prefer you can cut off the beard.
Mussels, especially larger Mediterranean mussels, may not be cooked through when they open. Look for the meat to contract before removing them from the heat. And however you serve them, expect to savor every juicy bit. Don’t forget the crusty bread.
Jenni Pertuset lives on Queen Anne with her family. Her favorite mussel preparation is Xinh Dwelley’s legendary mussels in coconut curry.
Westcott Bay Sea Farms
Order by phone: 1.360.378.2489
Find them at the farm:
904 Westcott Dr
Friday Harbor, WA 98250