A Pot of Mussels

This is one of the best of peasant dishes, with splendid flavours and aromas. Best of all, ifs very simple to re-create a version as good as the best.

Mussel soups appear to be another exception to the usual rule of stocks making the soup. Appear to be, because mussels provide their own stock to their own nest, and an intensely rich and salty stock it is too. Only danger is that the raw stock is also thickened with sand and mud and gunk from the shells. So there’s a little extra preparation required here, but from there the same rules apply. You mix and match and add and hold back, and you’ve got one of the great simple soups of our time.

The French knew this a million years back. There’s a classic of the coastline called moules √† la marini√®re. The translation is about the visual rather than the detail. Loosely, it means a sea of mussels. Mussels in their own sea. There is lots of onion and garlic and white wine and cream and the stock of mussels. In the twenties, this dish was served regularly to a big-shot American industrialist, William B. Leeds Jnr, at the famous Parisian restaurant Maxim’s. He must have been a great tipper. Soon enough the soup went under his name. So now, if you see the term Billy Bi on the menu, don’t think you’re getting a dish cooked in the outback. It’s just a mussel soup.

1kg mussels

celery, chopped finely

carrots, chopped finely

100 g shallots or small onions, chopped finely

2 cloves garlic, sliced finely

250 mL quality white wine

bay leaf

thyme

375 mL cream

black pepper

1/2 bunch of parsley, chopped

chives, chopped

1

Scrub the mussels in running cold water. This is about cleaning the shells, removing any gunk or mud that might be hanging about, that might give itself to the stock when the mussels are cooking.

2

Steam open the mussels in a little water, in a covered pot. The live mussels will open wide. Any mussels that steadfastly remain closed were dead when they went into the pot. The best thing to do with them is toss them out.

3

Strain the mussels over a fine sieve. Allow the mussel ‘milk’ to drain into a white bowl. The sand and gunk will sink to the bottom. Once it has sunk, spoon away the milk into a large stockpot.

4

Allow the mussels to cool, remove them from the shells, and tear away their beards. You might wish to leave a few mussels in their shells to make the end soup look more attractive, more alive.

5

Put the chopped celery, carrot, onion, garlic, white wine, bay leaf and thyme into the large stockpot (or pressure cooker) with the mussel milk, and cook until the vegetables are well done, and the alcohol has disappeared (up the spout, in the case of the pressure cooker). This takes about 25-30 minutes in the stockpot, 10 minutes in the PC.

6

Remove the stockpot from the heat, stir the cream through and blend quickly in the whizzer. Season with pepper only.

7

Re-heat gently. Put the cooked, warm mussels in a bowl, with chopped parsley and chives all about, and pour in the simmering soup and serve.

WINE: A good fino sherry would sit well here. It will need to be a good one, with plenty of ‘flor yeast’ character and zesty dryness.