The mussel is a bivalvular (two-shelled) edible mollusc with a greenish-black shell and orange flesh. It is found in coastal waters, mainly in the more temperate regions of the world, and is in season from September to March. Both wild and cultivated mussels are eaten, although there are vast differences in quality between the two. Wild mussels — generally found attached to stones and rocks – tend to be hard and leathery and are virtually inedible; cultivated mussels — bred on wooden hurdles – are small, tender and rather plump and have a delicate flavour.
Mussels should be alive when they are bought and care must be taken to ensure that they come from a reliable source – severe food poisoning and diseases can be caused by eating mussels taken from polluted waters.
Mussels may be eaten raw (with a squeeze of lemon), steamed (the most usual way of cooking them), pickled, smoked, or fried. They are also sometimes used as a garnish for fish dishes.
Mussels are prepared for cooking in the same way as CLAMS. Wash them thoroughly in cold water and, with a stiff brush, scrub them to remove any mud on their shells. Discard any mussels which are not tightly shut or do not close if sharply tapped, and any that float or have broken shells. With a sharp knife, scrape off the tufts of hair, or beards, which protrude from between the closed shell halves.
Place the mussels in a large bowl of cold water and soak them for 1 hour. Drain the mussels in a colander and set aside.
To steam mussels, pour enough water into a large saucepan to make a 2-inch layer. Add a pinch of bicarbonate of soda (this will effectively destroy any poisons secreted in the mussel flesh) and, if you wish to flavour the mussels, add a bouquet garni and a little salt and pepper. Cover the pan and place it over high heat. Steam the mussels for 6 to 10 minutes, or until they are all open. If any of the mussels are still closed, discard them.
Using a slotted spoon, remove the mussels from the pan and transfer them to a large dish. Remove and discard one shell from each mussel and transfer the mussels to individual serving dishes. Strain the cooking liquid through a fine strainer and serve this separately, if you wish.
The mussels are now ready to be served, or added to soups or stews. If you wish to use mussels in a stew or soup, add them at the end of the cooking time – like all shellfish, if mussels are over-cooked they will become rubbery.