Of any varietal of seafood, or for that matter protein, the mussel takes the lead in being the most sustainable of all. Whether farmed or harvested by hand, the Mediterranean mussel grows in abundance around South Africa’s coastline and helps to clean the ocean as it’s unique filter-feeding system purifies the water it lives in.
Farmed prolifically in the sheltered waters of Saldanha Bay on the Cape West Coast, the bivalves make for an easy aquaculture crop; ropes are suspended from wooden frames and seeded with juvenile mussels. Often mistaken for the Black mussel, the Mediterranean mussel is lighter in colour and has a larger shell. Both kinds make for fine eating, although the Mediterranean mussel is a better choice, as it is an invasive species. Introduced to South Africa in the Seventies, the Mediterranean mussel is currently listed as an underfished species and is on SASSI’s green list as a very sustainable option. A permit allows those keen to forage to pick their own – with the allocated amount being 30 mussels per person, per day.
Considered a humble ingredient, with clams, scallops and shellfish offering a more alluring choice on menus worldwide, the mussel is an affordable option that can be dressed up to suit any occasion. Most recognizable when served swimming in garlic butter or a creamy white wine sauce, this mainstream mollusc should always be purchased whole and sea-scented when at their freshest.
To prepare Mediterranean mussels, submerge them in a large sink of cold water, in case they haven’t been properly purged of sea sand. Then using steel wool or a stiff scrubbing brush, scrub each mussel of any seaweed or barnacle build-up. To de-beard a mussel, simply take hold of the beard (the weedy tangle of matter that the mussel uses to tether itself to the rocks) and give it a firm tug across the length of the shell. It should come away relatively easily, although this job can require some perseverance. Discard any mussels that don’t close when tapped sharply on the shell, as they are no longer alive. Store the cleaned mussels in a large bowl in the refrigerator until ready to cook.
Mediterranean Mussels with fennel, thyme & Parmesan
Prep time: 30 mins / Cook time: 20 mins / Serves: 4
2kg fresh Mediterranean mussels, purged, scrubbed and de-bearded
300ml fresh cream
200ml dry white wine
1 medium brown onion, finely chopped
Butter, for frying
1 large fennel bulb, thinly sliced
1 to 2 stalks of fresh dill
5 large sprigs of fresh thyme
4 large cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
100g freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Coarse ground sea salt and black pepper
It’s best to use a large stove-proof casserole with a lid for this recipe, as it makes steaming the mussels in the sauce an easier task.
Place the casserole dish over medium heat and sauté the chopped onion in the butter until translucent. Increase the heat, add the finely sliced fennel and cook al dente. Strip the thyme leaves from the woody stalks and add to the dish. Simmer the mixture for another minute then deglaze the dish with the white wine. Reduce by half and then add the cream and the crushed garlic. Scatter in the Parmesan cheese and stir to combine. Season to taste, going easy on the salt. Once the sauce has thickened, you can add in the mussels, as their liquid will loosen up the sauce again. Turn the heat to medium and place all the mussels into the sauce. Cover the dish with its lid and steam for about 6 to 8 minutes, or until all the mussels have opened – being sure to discard any that haven’t.
To serve, stir the mussels through the sauce and divide between four warmed bowls. Pinch off a few fronds of dill and scatter over each bowl. Serve the mussels immediately with lemon slices to squeeze over the top and fresh crusty bread to mop up the sauce.