There are handfuls of good mussel recipes, and my favourite is probably the classic buttery moules marinières or maybe… mussels grilled open over a hot smokey fire until the shells are beginning to blacken then slathered in cheap sticky off-the-shelf Thai chilli sauce. For the sake of literary amusement though I figured I would try a recipe from the book Wake by Elizabeth Knox. I couldn’t bring myself to put the book down once I’d dug in, and polished it off almost entirely in one sitting. It is set in the fictional Golden Bay seaside town of Kahukura, and it shouldn’t unduly reveal any plot to mention a passage where Bub the fisherman’s son describes his version of Mussel chowder
“She moved her gaze and squinted past his shoulder at the sun. ‘How long will your chowder take?’
‘Well,’ Bub said. First you have to chop plenty of onions and garlic, and fry it so it’s soft. Then put in a little saffron. Or turmeric, but saffron’s better. The mussels have to be steamed open. You rinse them to get out any barnacles and tiny crabs, then you chop up the big ones, and put the whole lot in water with some salt and pepper on a low heat—so that the liquid doesn’t get hot before the solids. That’s what makes mussels tough. You simmer it for a couple of hours. Then you add potatoes, bite-sized, and cook till the potatoes begin to get that peach fuzz look. And that’s it.’
‘You just gave me the whole recipe.’
Bub looked sheepish; then resolute. …”
Following the description, and guessing that 3 onions was plenty, I chopped them and 3 cloves of garlic. Cleaning out the steamed open mussels I found two little crabs, who were carrying eggs, which I ate. Kind of earthy tasting. Perhaps the taste of the seafloor.
I had saffron, so threw that in, added cold water and left it on low for two hours before adding the potatoes. Even the smaller mussels that had escaped chopping had lost their chewiness and the potatoes lent a bit of thickness to the liquid. The saffron taste came through and was just right. The chowder really benefitted from further salt and pepper when served. I was really impressed with the texture and the flavour especially given the utilitarian ingredient list. Next time I’m on the coast and find a source of mussels I know I’ll be wondering what the chances are of there being turmeric or saffron available to throw this together.