BY DR. JENNIFER BENDER & LOUISA KASDON
WHY DON’T MORE PEOPLE GO GAGA FOR MUSSELS?
Oysters have become the sexy date in the last decade. Are mussels forever destined to be just friends? Why is there no “merroir” movement for mussels? A little hint of the brininess of Chatham here? The chill of Penobscot Bay there? Can you imagine a tasting plate of an array of steaming gorgeous black-blue-purple specimens, chef-selected from Nova Scotia to Newport RI, finished with a dipping sauce of melted garlic butter. Mussels from Prince Edward Island, the most familiar to people in New England, taste different than the Black Gold Mussels wild harvested from Cape Cod Bay. And both differ from farmed mussels grown in Maine with different textures and flavors, ranging from sweet to savory, to salty, louder and softer. One taste and you are swimming in the sea.
While the glamour of the oyster lies in the complex crenellations on the outside of the shell, mussels have inner beauty. Pry open a mussel to find a layer of mother-of-pearl iridescence (composed of calcium carbonate), enclosed in a violet and blue metallic shimmering packet. If we eat with our eyes, mussels are all cool tones and shimmer, top contenders in the shellfish category. Oysters may be round and white, but mussels have more flash and flesh.
It’s a conundrum. Mussels are local and plentiful in New England, easy on the environment, and reliably economical with a wholesale cost of a modest $1.45 per pound. But when people wax passionate about local shellfish, mussels seem like the B-team. Even the C-Team. Although the wholesale market for mussels has boomed in recent years as chefs are wising up, they still haven’t cracked the home kitchen market. And why not? Cooking them is easy. (And a lot simpler than shucking an oyster!) Remove the beards with a brisk twist and throw them in a pot with a little wine and garlic until they open. Voila! Fancy, easy and economical in under 10 minutes. Add a loaf of crusty bread and you are an instant culinary hero.
Let’s launch a movement to champion the humble mussel and create a resurgence of respect. The French and the Belgians take credit for mussels as a regional specialty. But we New Englanders can change that. We have bounty on our side.
A MUSSEL PRIMER
Mussels have been eaten as a food source for thousands of years, particularly in coastal areas of Southern Europe. They grow all over the world, primarily in temperate zones, and have always been a reliable source of protein. Mussels are particularly popular in the Netherlands, France, and in Belgium where Moules Frites is a national dish.
Mytilus edulis have been referred to as the ugly cousin to the quahog or oyster. Unfair we think! Mussels are versatile and attractive, they grow everywhere, in the water column, on the seafloor, and faster than other bivalves.
Mussels are ubiquitous in Massachusetts and New England along the coastline, discreetly clinging to rocky shores and pilings. So plentiful and visible, perhaps mussels have become the invisible plebeians of the bivalve world.
Mussels are the nutritional rock stars of filter feeders (an animal that gets its food by filtering plankton or tiny organisms from the water) and are loaded with important nutrients such as iron, selenium, vitamin B12, zinc, folate and omega-3s.
Mussels are grilled or steamed like clams, served in hearty bowls with sustaining broths, while oysters, eaten both raw and cooked have been touted as aphrodisiacal zinc-bombs. (Spoiler alert: you’d have to eat a bushel to make a dent).
Mussels are both wild harvested and farmed. The wild harvesters are located in Cape Cod Bay and in Chatham. When the conditions are right, stocks are abundant.
Mussel landing data from Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries Annual Reports, in 2013, 6 .7 mil lbs. of mussels were landed and in 2015, 19.2 mil lbs. of mussels landed. It’s hard to tell whether effort has increased or the resource is more abundant.
Growing mussels commercially is a headache. A would-be mussel farmer will spend a great deal of time and money to secure a location with the right characteristics of water quality, current velocity, depth, wind direction and seabed conditions, and a specially designed boat to integrate with the farm equipment. Acquiring the practical know-how to make a mussel farm work is in short supply too since mussel farming is still a small industry locally.
Permitting for a Mussel Farm is cumbersome. Difficult in Massachusetts, slightly easier in Rhode Island and in Maine, two states that do not have a municipal component for permitting. Many interests compete in coastal environment management. Commercial fisheries bounce up against regulations governing protection of endangered species and marine mammals leaving little space available for mussel farms. And further, in certain coastal locations, the water quality is unacceptable for ocean farming.
Modern mussel farming is not high-tech. The technical knowledge for suspension culture got its start in the late 1990s and 2000s, when technology was transferring from Spain, France and New Zealand. The chief technical challenges are to place a farm in the right location that allows for easy growth and practical access for harvesting. Equipment that can stand up to local weather means that lines needed to be held below the surface, sometimes as deep as 50 feet. Additionally, a mussel farmer has to protect against predators, such as Eider Ducks. (Who knew?)