The horizontal smir prevented my attempts to achieve anything meaningful in the garden over the last couple of days. Low cloud and mist have been scudding over the surface of these low-lying windswept islands for a few days. Flights and ferries have been disrupted and cancelled, mail and papers erratic.
Quadrantid Meteor Shower
Nonetheless, last night there was a small break in the cloud just after midnight. This allowed us to get a glimpse of the promised first meteor shower of the year, the Quadrantid meteor shower. The shower is apparently produced from the debris of an asteroid (2003 EH1), possibly the extinct nucleus of a comet that broke up centuries ago and the shower was supposed to reach its peak just before dawn today.
The possibility of seeing an average of 100 shooting stars an hour, here in the UK, cloud cover permitting, forced us into the back garden to scan the night sky over the Atlantic. Of course, there is no light pollution here on the edge of Europe and star-gazing on a clear night yields interesting observations, be these of planets, constellations or satellites – and shooting stars. We have also had irregular but spectacular views of the Aurora Borealis.
Astronomical advice was to look north west to see the radiant point where meteors may stream from. Sure enough, we were outside being buffeted in the wind and in only 2 or 3 minutes we saw numerous shooting stars, one was particularly bright and spectacular, enough to make us both gasp ‘Whoa!’. Unfortunately, patchy cloud smothered out the view very quickly and thickened over the course of the night, so the promised natural firework display was short-lived. Despite keeping a vigil from bed with the curtains open, the cloud never really lifted and we lost the opportunity to see any more of the spectacle.
Day time forays – The Mightly Mytilus
I don’t return to work until Monday, yet despite this, I don’t feel like I have a huge amount of time on my hands to get things done, or even that I am particularly achieving a lot while I am off! This always leads me to question how I do manage to cram what I desire to acheive into the average weekday of work, et al. It certainly seems to be the case that I am much more efficient when the working day puts a squeeze on my time, so in a way, I look forward to returning to that status quo next week.
Meanwhile, despite the weather, I wanted to make the most of getting outside, beyond my daily dog walk. This was a bit too exciting today as the dogs disturbed three red deer. Fortunately, after a quick dash towards the deer, they returned excitedly to our side as they would rather be with us and deer are quite frankly a bit big and scary.
Winter foraging opportunities are rare here. The collection of even those easiest to locate beasts along the seashore, the mussel, is complicated by the requirement for low tide to fall in the short hours of daylight and on a day when I am not working. Hence, while mussels are common and abundant, I get out to collect them very infrequently.
The mussel Mytilus edulis is common all around the UK coast, occurring from the high intertidal to shallow subtidal on the shore. It is found on rocky shores or open coasts as well as where hard substrates occur in more sheltered coasts, including estuaries. It is so successful because of its capacity to tolerate a wide range of temperature, salinity, and to some extent, water depths.
Mytilus edulis is gregarious, and can form very dense beds, with young mussels settling to colonise any available space between individuals already attached to the bed by super-strong byssal threads. These threads (also known as the beard to the cook) help to maintain their position in the bed, even in strong currents and storms. Mussel beds provide niches for many other marine organisms and mussels are heavily predated. Predation has the biggest impact on mussel mortality – and makes them important in the food chain. They are eaten by birds (notably eider and oystercatchers), flounders, crabs, starfish and dog whelks, to name but a few.
As an invertebrate zoologist, I must admit that I find it very difficult to stop myself going on at length about the fascinating physiology of these bivalve molluscs. I will resist and spare the reader the detail, save to say that the fact the mussel is a filter feeder has fundamental implications for the way the forager selects and the cook manages mussels.
My local mussel patch
I collect wild mussels from a few favoured spots. The one I chose yesterday is on the west side of North Uist, a few hundred metres from my house. It is a sheltered sandy bay protected from storms by many islands and reefs and is well away from the open Atlantic. It is a great spot for swimming at low tide in summer when the pools left behind warm up in the sun – you don’t even need a dry suit to get in.
It is also an area where it pays to keep an eye on the tides as this vast expanse of sand has channels of water that are deep and fast flowing once the tide turns and fill up alarmingly quickly, preventing safe crossing. However, it is a convenient site for me and happens to yield the best mussels I have found so far. They are always almost grit free, moderately sized with plump contents. Sometimes the biggest shells do not yield the biggest mussels. I always take only as many as I need, usually about 2 kg, enough for 2 meals to make it worth my while. I also try not to detach smaller mussels that have settled between those larger ones I am harvesting and I don’t take them all from the same spot.
I did photograph the bay, which is really quite beautiful in most weathers, however, yesterday conditions were so poor, it looked incredibly bleak and driech and I decided not to include the photos as I don’t want to give such a bad impression of the place – or to have the tourist board on my case.
Gathering your wild mussels
Often there are concerns raised about the safety of eating wild mussels, particularly in areas where contaminants/pollutants may accumulate in the tissues of these filter feeders. Also, there is potential for toxic planktonic algae within the mussel to cause food poisoning, either Diaretic Shellfish Poisoning (DSP) or the more serious Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning (PSP), depending on which dinoflagellate algae are within the mussel. Neither pollutants or blooms are an issue here.
The best way to avoid the risks is to stick to the old adage of only collecting and eating mussels when there is an ‘R’ in the month, hence avoiding the spring and summer seasons when algal blooms may proliferate. Mussels are also in better condition over the winter and are plumper as males and females build up stores of milt and roe prior to spring spawning. If you live in an area where blooms are an issue, or have concerns about using wild mussels, farmed mussels are the easiest option. Mussel farming is pretty sustainable, and the only fundamental difference between these and wild mussels is the precaution to manage the toxic algae risk by placing the mussels harvested from ropes in tanks of sea water sterilised by use of UV lights.
Of course, wild mussels can have a lot of barnacles growing on them, as well as seaweed, and these need dealt with too.
Preparing your foraged mussels
For the first stage, I rinse them under the tap and place in a bucket of cold tap water, sprinkle over some oatmeal, add a tablespoon of salt and leave overnight. This will allow the mussels to filter through and clean out grit (the oatmeal is supposed to help) and also loosens the barnacles which you will need to remove later.
Next day, I scrape the mussels, remove the tough beards from the inner lip – these are the byssal threads that attach the mussel to rocks – pliers are handy if you find this a struggle. I scrape off the barnacles with a knife, otherwise they will fall off in cooking and the gritty pieces will spoil any sauce (although I always strain cooking liquids to be sure to remove any grit). They are ready to be cooked ASAP.
Yes, there are a million and one recipes for this but it is hard to resist making one of my mussel meals this classic. It is very quick and simple and encapsulates everything about France and the sea in one bowl. I served it with sunblush tomato and thyme foccacia on this occasion.
1kg of mussels, cleaned
splash of olive oil
2 shallots, finely chopped
2 cloves of garlic, sliced
a sprig of thyme
a couple of glasses of dry white wine
a few grinds of pepper
fresh parsley, chopped
2 tblsp double cream (optional)
- Put a glug of olive oil in a large pan with the shallots and garlic, fry gently to soften for 5 minutes.
- Throw in the thyme, mussels and pour over the wine.
- Cover with a lid and wait 5-10 minutes, shaking the pan vigorously occasionally until all mussels are open and cooked, discard any shells that don’t open.
- Strain off the cooking liquid into a pan through a fine sieve or muslin to get rid of grit, herbs, garlic slices.
- Add the double cream (if desired) and bring to the boil and simmer for a few minutes. Season with pepper.
- Plate up the mussels and pour over the sauce and garnish with parsley.
Sunblush tomato and thyme foccacia
A quick and tasty foccacia to mop up the sauce from the mussels. My thyme is now well and truly ravaged by my excessive pruning for cooking and the vagaries of the weather. I have 2 intact plants remaining – I hope they can last me until the spring…
1/2 tsp dried yeast
300g strong white flour
1 tblsp olive oil
1 tsp salt
170 ml water
1/2 jar sunblush tomatoes in olive oil
4 sprigs of thyme
2 garlic cloves, crushed
Extra olive oil to top foccacia
Maldon salt for sprinkling on top
Preheat oven to 195C
- Combine all ingredients in a bowl, slowly adding the water to get a slightly sticky dough consistency.
- Put some olive oil on the work surface and knead for 10 minutes until the dough is stretchy, elastic and smooth.
- Leave in a warm place for 45 minutes and knead for a further 5 minutes. Rest for a further 15 minutes before rolling out to the desired size/shape and adding the tomatoes
- Mix the thyme leaves with some olive oil and the crushed garlic and spread over the surface. Sprinkle over some Maldon salt.
- Bake for 18-20 minutes until golden, cut up and serve.
Mussel and Leek Chowder
To get the most out of the mussels, I used the second kilo to prepare another meal. This chowder recipe is based on that in Nigel Slater’s ‘Tender Volume II’, a vegetable growers cookbook bible, especially for easy everyday vegetable-centric delicious meals, snacks and suppers. I replaced the bacon with chorizo, as I had no bacon. I also cut down the cream by 1/4 I thought it may be too powerful for the mussels with the chorizo, but they still came through on balance, thanks to the use of the cooking liquor. I always favour Noilly Prat for such recipes (to bring a bit of Languedoc to North Uist), but any white vermouth can be used.
1kg mussels, cleaned
150g chorizo (not hot)
2 glasses Noilly Prat
150 ml double cream
2 bay leaves
4 sprigs of thyme
handful of chopped parsley
- Clean and thinly slice the leeks, slice the chorizo.
- Add the chorizo to the butter in a pan on a moderate heat and cook for a few minutes, add the leeks and turn down low, put on a lid and cook for about 20 minutes
- Clean and prepare the mussels and place in a large pan pour over the vermouth and put the lid on. Cook on a high heat until all mussels are open. Discard any that do not open.
- Remove the mussels from the shells, strain and retain the cooking liquor.
- Peel the potatoes and cut into large dice. Put in a pan with 400ml of cooking liquor, the cream, thyme, bay and some black pepper.
- Bring to the boil and simmer for 15 minutes or until potatoes are tender.
- Add 3/4 of the potatoes to the leek and chorizo mix, remove the herbs then blitz the remaining potatoes and liquid with a hand blender or liquidiser until smooth.
- Add to the pan with leeks, chorizo, potatoes, etc, add the mussels and parsley, bring to the boil and serve.