mussel picking in cornwall

cornish mussels

We love nothing more that ferreting about in the hedgerows and finding something to eat. In the past I’ve been known to rustle up a tasty wild morsel, such as blackberry crumble or wild garlic pesto. But despite living for almost eight years, just two miles from the coast, I’ve never been mussel picking.

Perhaps it was an unconscious diversion, brought about by the tales my father used to tell me of cockles screaming when you boiled them – we holidayed in Norfolk for years, and went cockling for all of those summers and I used to run out of the caravan as soon as the pan went on the hob.

I’m not adverse to eating seafood though – the highlight of my gastronomic molluscan eating career coming last year, with my first visit to the Wheelhouse in Falmouth – a local gem of a restaurant that serves only shellfish in a variety of mouthwatering ways, think mussels in red Thai, coconut sauce and the best white wine and cream sauce I have ever tasted in my life. If you haven’t been, go – if you can get a table.

So, last weekend we’re out for a walk at our favourite beach, Poly Joke, and the tide is low, very low. And as we’re paddling down on the shoreline we start to notice that there’s some mussels just right for the picking, so we did.

When we got home I read up a bit about prep and care, and here are a few pointers I followed:

Check where you’re picking – a bad mussel is quite an experience. And stocks can easily be contaminated by sewage overflow. The River Fal has just had it’s mussel farms closed, you can read more here: River Fal mussel harvest fears over Food Standards Agency ban
There seems to be differing advice on when to pick – only when there’s an ‘R’ in the month, or only between October and April etc.
Leave the little ones – if you’re picking out of the official harvesting season particularly, leave the little ones alone, this gives the colonies a chance to replenish
Keep your mussels cool until use
Soak them in a bowl of salty water for an hour or so to release any grit
Remove all barnacles and beards
Give all open mussels a sharp tap, if they don’t close, throw them away – they’re dead
Once cooked, don’t force any closed shells open, throw them away.

Getting rid of the beards was surprisingly tough – I read that you should give them a quick sharp tug in the direction of the hinge. Which I did, and which didn’t always work. And in some instances I found myself resorting to biting them off – probably not very professional or pretty to watch, but I got there eventually.

Once they’re prepped, you can cook. And I decided to go down the classical recipe route. I absolutely loved the white wine and cream sauce served up at the Wheelhouse and remembering the waitress saying there was a lot of Thyme in it, opted for that rather than traditional parsley.

Other than that I simply followed Rick Steins recipe – as I figure he knows his mustard when it comes to food from the sea. We served ours with big glasses of white wine and fries and bread for dunking. Delicious.

Moules marinière with cream

Moules marinière with cream

1.75kg/4lb mussels
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
2 shallots, finely chopped
15g/½oz butter
a bouquet garni of parsley, thyme and bay leaves
100ml/3½fl oz dry white wine or cider
120ml/4fl oz double cream
handful of parsley leaves, coarsley chopped
crusty bread, to serve

Preparation method
Wash the mussels under plenty of cold, running water. Discard any open ones that won’t close when lightly squeezed.
Pull out the tough, fibrous beards protruding from between the tightly closed shells and then knock off any barnacles with a large knife. Give the mussels another quick rinse to remove any little pieces of shell.
Soften the garlic and shallots in the butter with the bouquet garni, in a large pan big enough to take all the mussels – it should only be half full.
Add the mussels and wine or cider, turn up the heat, then cover and steam them open in their own juices for 3-4 minutes. Give the pan a good shake every now and then.
Remove the bouquet garni, add the cream and chopped parsley and remove from the heat.
Spoon into four large warmed bowls and serve with lots of crusty bread.

Full recipe here

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