Scandinavian mussel (Mytilus edulis) are regarded with some suspicion by most northerners; their strange, fleshy appearance, paired with ignorance of their sweet juiciness, salty flavory taste and relative cheapness keeps far too many from eating them.
And maybe, despite countless recipes, you have to know how – it’s daunting to attack a bag of mussels if you haven’t seen it done.
Scandinavians love mussels
Stone age northerners were not such picky eaters; they amassed countless heaps of mollusc shells (the koeckenmoeddin), ample proof that we were dependent on marine creatures; and ate just everything in the animal kingdom.
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But those of us who do eat mussels love them. Their flavor is indispensable in fish dishes, soups and sauces. They are cheap and easy to prepare, and a very sociable thing to eat. You fed a certain togetherness with the other people around the table or camp fire, everyone bathed in mussel juices, emptied shells heaping up in a deliciously uncivilized manner.
Wild Scandinavian mussels
There are lots of mussels in northern waters, including blue and knife mussels, sweet and fine from the cold waters that deduce the speed of their growth.
We pick wild mussels in tidal waters, from crevices, and poles, where you can gather as many as you can eat in a very short while. Wild mussels must be picked in areas where bathing is considered safe, which means far from sewers and polluting operations, as mussels can’t choose what they feed on, and can be full of nasty things.
Related: Norwegian Crow’s Balls
Knife mussels are abundant in some areas, but they are not gathered commercially. If you can catch them you have to be very quick about it, or they puff themselves deep into the sand, as they sense the vibrations of your feet on the ground.
Appearance and taste of Scandinavian mussel
Blue mussels are mostly farmed nowadays, attached to ropes where they feed on small larvae and plankton floating in the water. This means that there is no sand in them, and they are a uniform size. They also have thinner shells than the wild mussels. All mussels taste more or less the same – sweet, salty, fleshy and appetizing.
Buying and storing
The good thing is that cultivated mussels are available all year round and are also very safe, with none of the potential health risks of wild ones; being free of sand they are also much easier to clean.
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Mussels must be alive when you buy them, if not necessarily when you eat them. The shells must be smooth, shiny and whole – cracked mussels are usually dead, and there is no telling for how long. Seaweed and other stuff on the shells does not matter.
Different species have very different shells, but what you must always look for in live mussels are shells that are tightly shut, or shut immediately if you tap them; if they don’t, they are not fit for eating and must be thrown away. Cooked mussels that have not opened up are probably filled with mud and must be thrown away.
Prepare mussels on the day that you buy or gather them. (Once cooked, they can keep in the fridge for a couple of days.) Wild mussels need a good scrub, and you’ll need to cut off all the fiddly little threads (beards), that they use to cling to the rocks. Cultivated or line mussels just need a quick wash in a bowl of cold water. Check that every single mussel is lightly closed before you cook them.
Avoid frozen mussels as they are always rubbery.
Mussels have two missions in the kitchen; the succulent flesh (well, succulent if not cooked for too long) and the juices. The latter, when boiled to a washing-up-water-colored essence, taste like a holiday at the seaside and are pure gold in any soup, risotto, stew or sauce containing any kind of marine creature. If it’s the juices you are after, you might have to surrender the mussels themselves, and boil them for too long to make good eating, in order to extract most of the taste.
Raw mussels are easy to hot smoke, and this is a lovely way to spend a summer evening on the beach. Or simply bake them on a bed of seaweed in a bonfire on the sand. Remember to bring lemon.
Feature image (on top) Photo: Jonas Ingman
Scandinavian Mussel, written by Tor Kjolberg