Mussels are a wonderfully affordable bivalve mollusc found all over the world and one of the easiest to prepare. They are particularly popular in France, Belgium, Netherlands, Spain and Italy.The mussels that grow in Australia are either the same species as, or almost identical to, those found in the Mediterranean and North Atlantic.
Once popular as snacks that could be harvested free or purchased cheaply (and known as ‘poor man’s Oysters’), these filter feeders became a casualty of the Industrial Revolution as people became concerned about the quality of the water in which they were growing wild. Mytiliculture, as the cultivation of mussels is known, was however one of the earliest forms of aquaculture, dating to at least 13th century France.
Blue Mussels are often just called Mussels (or black Mussels), as they are the only commercial species of Mussel sold in quantity in Australia. They grow wild in intertidal waters to depths of around 20m, often in dense clumps, attached by coarse rope-like ‘beards’ (byssal threads) to exposed reefs, rocks and jetty pylons, and were traditionally harvested by divers off southern NSW, Victoria, SA and southern WA.
Wild Mussel harvests have been in decline, however, since aquaculture commenced in NSW in 1976, and now all Blue Mussels sold commercially are farmed. They are grown in southern NSW (around Eden), Victoria, Tasmania, SA and southern WA in clean, sheltered water 5-20m deep. During spawning, Mussels produce up to 8 million tiny eggs (0.07mm in diameter), which float on the currents for up to 3 months before settling.
The tiny immature Mussels (spat) are collected on ropes (mainly from the wild, although some are produced in hatcheries in Tasmania) and raised in long ‘socks’ (to protect them from predators) suspended from horizontal ropes attached to buoys to keep them immersed (known as subtidal suspended culture). They are harvested at 12-18 months, when they average 6-9cm and 25-40g (although they can grow to almost 13cm and 50g) and are available year round. The smooth dark, wedge-shaped shell (usually bluey-purple to black, but occasionally browny-grey,) with a bluish-white interior is easily distinguished from other bivalve molluscs such as Oysters, Pipis and Vongole.
Green Mussels (Perna canaliculus), also known as green-lipped Mussels, are imported frozen from their native New Zealand. They are generally larger than Blue Mussels, averaging 11cm and 60g, and are partly cooked before being exported in order to satisfy Australian quarantine bans on the importation of live animals. Because of this initial cooking, they aren’t suitable for cooked dishes, as they tend to turn tough when recooked.
Blue Mussels are sold live. Look for brightly coloured, intact, lustrous shells, that are closed or close when tapped or gently squeezed, and a pleasant fresh sea smell. Tiny crabs are sometimes found inside Mussels, they are harmless and do not indicate any problem with the Mussel.
Live shellfish should be consumed as soon as possible after purchase. Place Mussels in a container, cover with a damp cloth and keep in the warmest part of the refrigerator, usually the crisper (optimum 5°C), ensuring that the covering remains damp. Before cooking, discard any shells that are open and don’t close when tapped or gently squeezed (you may need to give them 10-20 minutes out of the fridge to warm up first). Cooked Mussels can be removed from their shells and frozen for up to 3 months (below -18ºC) then thawed in the refrigerator and used in soups or salads (do not recook as they’ll become tough).
If Mussels are being served in the shell, remove the beards before cooking by holding shells firmly closed and sharply tugging beards away from the pointy end of the shell; if Mussels are being removed from shells, cook with beards attached, they are easy to pull off the cooked Mussels once they’re removed from their shells. Lightly scrub shells with a plastic scourer to remove any sediment or barnacles. They have a rich, strong flavour, high oiliness and moist, juicy, medium-textured flesh. All of the flesh inside the shell is edible, females tend to be more orange in colour, whereas males are paler.
Mussels yield an average of 30% meat, so allow around 600g of whole shells per person as a main course. Mussels work well with bacon, breadcrumbs, butter, celery, chilli, citrus, fennel, garlic, herbs (coriander, dill, lovage, parsley, French tarragon), mayonnaise, olive oil, onion, pepper, Pernod, potatoes, saffron, tomato, white wine. They lend themselves to a wide range of cooking styles, including steaming, poaching, deep-frying, stir-frying, baking, grilling, barbecuing (in the shell), smoking and pickling. Some connoisseurs even like the very fresh ones raw (sashimi), though this is rare.
Due to their similarities, Blue Mussels often make a good substitute for Vongole, Pipis and other clams. The firm flesh works particularly well in soups, curries and stir-fries and they are often seen in cream or tomato sauces, fried, sautéed, au gratin (covered with herb and garlic butter and breadcrumbs and grilled until bubbling), in omelettes, soups, pasta, paella and salads.
Remember that they need very little cooking and are ready virtually as soon as the shells open. Put them in a single layer in a wide-based frying pan, cover and place over a high heat. You don’t need to add any liquid or flavourings as they’ll steam open in their own juices, but, if you wish, you can fry onions, shallots, fennel, garlic, parsley stalks, and/or pepper in a little oil first, add some white wine, bring to the boil, then add Mussels.
Remove the individual shells from the pan as each one opens, cover and continue cooking, checking and removing open shells every few seconds, so as not to overcook them. There are often a few stubborn shells that don’t open regardless of how long they’re cooked, traditional wisdom was to discard these (as they may have already been dead prior to cooking), you can, however, pry them open over the sink, and if they smell good, they’re good to eat; if they are bad, your nose will tell you!
Strain the Mussel liquor through muslin and add it to soups and sauces for extra flavour. Remove the meat from the shells or serve them shell and all. If serving in the shell, remember to put a large bowl on the table for discarded shells with some finger bowls and big napkins.