My first memory of eating Moules Marinières (Sailor’s Mussels) is so vivid that I can still hear the sound of the sea as we feasted on ‘Moules Frites’ (literally mussels with fries) long after the sun went down. The year was 1987 and we were on the beach in Saint Cyr-sur-Mer, in the south of France, not far from where I was spending a year as an exchange student. To be an exchange student is to throw open your arms and embrace everything that is new. I had never tried mussels before, but what the heck – after a long day at the beach, it seemed the thing to do.
Those mussels were steamed in beer and came in huge bowls, family-style, with empty bowls on the side for the shells, baskets filled with hot, salty fries and lots of cold beer to wash it all down with. So simple and yet a true feast in every sense, especially with the ocean a pebble’s throw away and the warm sea air ruffling our hair.
I’ve made Moules Marinières many times since but it has never been quite the same as that first night. I suppose that’s to be expected – it was a tough act to follow. Marinières, by the way, refers to the particular recipe that involves steaming the mussels in white wine or beer, with garlic, onions, shallots and parsley. You can have your mussels cooked with curry or tomatoes, chilli – there are probably hundreds of variations (to which any visitor to Belgium can attest). But this remains my favourite.
I use white wine rather than beer, mainly because I like to drink the wine that I put in the mussels. Having said that, beer and beaches seem to have a natural affinity, so if I were making it on the beach I’d go for beer – just for old times’ sake!
What You Need:
1 kg (about 2lbs) live mussels
1 onion, finely chopped
1 shallot, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
Good handful of parsley, roughly chopped
A cup (or two) or good white wine (something you’d want to drink with it)
Knob of butter
What You Do:
1. Scrub the mussel shells under running cold water and remove their ‘beards’ (the fibrous protrusion). Discard any mussels that remain open after having been handled – they’re dead.
2. In a large pot, melt the butter and then throw in the garlic, onion and shallot and sauté until soft.
3. Add the wine, bring to a boil and then tip in the mussels. Cover and let steam (tossing a couple of times) for 5-10 minutes.
4. Just before serving, add the chopped parsley, toss to coat with all that wonderful juice, and tip everything out into a large serving bowl. Pour any extra juice over the mussels.
5. Serve with french fries and the rest of the wine.
Notes for Next Time:
1. Remember when you’re cleaning them, to discard any mussels that don’t close. When you’re eating them, throw away the ones that didn’t open in cooking.
2. Use an empty mussel shell as pinchers to remove the mussel meat from the others as you go. It’s easy and means less dishes to do.
3. If you don’t mop up all the juice with your fries, save and freeze whatever is left for use as a fish stock. It’s too good to throw away. Even just a half a cup of the stuff will boost your next fish stew.
4. Don’t think of this as an exclusively ‘grown-up’ meal. My kids, aged 3 and 4, love Moules Marinières!