Mussels didn’t feature on my childhood dinner table. My adoptive mother didn’t like shellfish, and the only seafood consumed in our home was fish on Fridays during lent, cooked outside on the deck to prevent the smell from permeating our house. And the occasional shrimp cocktail for fancy dinners on Birthdays – the shrimps, tiny, from a small blue labelled tin – drenched in mayonnaise and tomato sauce and the whole scary business clumped into a lettuce leaf in a champagne saucer. (In her defense, it WAS the ’70’s)
It wasn’t until I moved to the Winterless North in my 21st year that I would experience the full spectrum of Kai Moana (food of the sea). Surrounded by ocean, this wildly beautiful narrow band of earth forming the top of the North Island of New Zealand, allows easy access to abundant and super fresh seafood. From gooey kina (sea urchins) plucked from deep rock-pools at Mimiwhangata; snapper stuffed with dill, lemon, and butter, wrapped in foil and BBQ’ed on balmy sun-dress nights; oily mullet caught in early morning nets on Bailey’s Beach and smoked in fragrant Manuka; to the plump sweetness of the green lipped mussels, I was in love.
No surprise then, that my heart skipped a beat when L suggested a second trip out to Fish Quay during my UK Food-Porn visit, in order to show his nephew J the sights.
L and I had gone there the week prior, stopping for a beer at the Custom House Pub, where the iconic “Wooden Dolly” stands out front in her red frock. (She is actually the 6th Dolly to be placed there. The others became so defaced over time, by the sailors and fishermen who took splinters to bring them luck on their seafaring adventures, that she/they were wheeled off and replaced. Six Times. There’s a metaphor in that people.)
That trip had furnished us with a kilo of delicate clams, and 4 giant tender prawns, which we paired with a dry Alsace Riesling – also used to splosh in with the clams as they steamed open, along with a little cream and generous amounts of fresh dill and flat leaf parsley. The prawns were simply placed in sizzling butter, along with garlic, chili, and fresh lime juice, until the shells turned their characteristic red hue, and served with lightly steamed semphire.
This trip, we were all determined to continue the food-porn theme of the vacation/staycation, and hunt out the most dazzling kai moana on offer at the wet-fish stores dotted along the Quay, to take home to cook for dinner. At least, we were, until hungry from our walk to the Quay from the Tynemouth Train Station, we stopped to eat lunch at The Staith House. Sharing a mixture of starters and mains that included pulled pork pie, fish cakes, chunky golden fries, and mushy peas, we decided we could squeeze more in. Maybe some battered fish? We were on Fish Quay after all. Battered fish ordered, hammered with gusto, final mouthfuls duly swallowed, we lumbered our way up the road, full, and slightly beer-headed. And here’s the thing. When your stomach is GROANING with food, and all you really want to do is lie down for a nap and DIGEST, nothing, not even the subtle whisper of sea infused, sparkling fresh black mussels can enchant you.
Plodding through the store, which was due to close shortly, we couldn’t fathom eating again. This is the reason they tell you to grocery shop on a full stomach.
We left empty-handed and began making our way back through the Quay.
L:”We could always go to the supermarket later, when we’ve figured out what we feel like eating for dinner.”
Me: :::Suddenly hearing the siren’s call of the black shiny mussels in the store, bagged together in their rope netting, peeping out seductively through their shells::: “Wait! I’ve changed my mind. I want to go back for the black mussels. I’ve never had black mussels. Just green-lipped NZ mussels. I want to compare them!”
Cue us lumbering back, at a slightly quicker pace as the store was closing any minute, and purchasing 2 kilos of Black Mussels, and two large fillets of white sole.
We made our way back to the Tynesmouth village, where on passing the enormous Castle and Priory, built around the 7th Century AD, the two Giant Brains explored Capital Value and Depreciation in regards to Big Old Buildings, and I mused silently on the possible pay rates of the labourers who built them.
The Shiny Black Mussels:
– 2 Kilo Mussels
– Generous Knob of Butter
– 6-7 spring onions, finely chopped on the diagonal (include white and green)
– Cup of dry white wine (I used some left over Sauvignon blanc)
– Generous pinch of Saffron
– Handful of finely chopped dill and parsley
– About 150 ml of cream (You could take this up a notch by using Marscapone)
– Generous couple of Tablespoons of sour cream (Creme Fraiche would work beautifully too)
– Squeeze of Fresh lemon, and lemon wedges for serving.
– Few turns of the pepper grinder.
– Heat the butter in your largest stock pot until the frothing subsides. (L’s largest pot didn’t accommodate 2 kilos of mussels easily. I plunked them all in, and they didn’t all open well. J rescued the unopened ones from the dinner table and re-steamed them. Generally speaking, you would discard mussels that don’t open after steaming, but these were simply under-steamed.)
– Add the spring onion and cook until slightly softened, stirring often. Should take no more than a minute.
– Add the wine and saffron, and allow to cook 2-3 minutes.
– Add the mussels, cover with a pot lid, and steam the mussels until they are open. Shake the pot regularly as you steam them, so they open evenly.
– Remove the mussels from the pot, leaving the wine, saffron, spring onion, mussel juice in the pot. (alternatively, drain them over the sink, remembering to collect the juices in a bowl if you do.)
– Add the cream and sour cream. Turn up the heat, and reduce the liquid down a little, until it coats the back of a spoon. Around 5 minutes.
– Add the fresh chopped dill and parsley, and the lemon juice. Season with Black pepper to taste. The sauce shouldn’t need salt; the briny flavours of the mussels are usually more than enough.
– Throw the mussels back in the pot, and shake well to coat them with the juices/sauce.
– Serve immediately with crusty warmed bread to mop up the juices.
And the difference between New Zealand Green Lipped Mussels and the Black Northern English Mussels?
Green lipped are huge in comparison. Much meatier. When buying NZ Green Lipped Mussels, you always avoid those which are open – it indicates they are no longer alive, unlike the Black Mussels, which are generally open – and very much alive – when on ice in the store. The ligament keeping the Green Lipped Mussel shell closed is much tougher and can be less pleasant to eat. The Black English Mussels had a milder less briny flavour, and were overall more tender, somewhere between a clam and a NZ Mussel. Both are sweet. Both are succulent. Both recall the ocean, the gulls, the sound of waves. The love affair continues.