Foraging on my doorstep 1: Mussels in tarragon and pastis cream

This short series of posts focuses on very locally foraged free food gathered predominantly from the shoreline near my house.  First, a rich starter of mussels with a decadent cream sauce featuring the heady anise-heavy combination of pastis and fresh tarragon.

cockles and mussels

Warning of significant digressions in this post, skip to recipe at bottom of the post to avoid same.

Windows of opportunity

I have been making the most of the short windows of opportunity that the stormy and erratic weather has presented here on North Uist.  Given the fairly unrelenting storms since the beginning of December, one either grasps the nettle and heads outside to embrace the squall, or cowers indoors to suffer from cabin fever.   The latter is not an option for me, not least because I also have to get out for daily dog walks. That said, some days have been so wet and windy, the dogs have declined to leave the house for all but the shortest periods. Sensible animals. The forage and beach walk in the photo was atmospheric and perhaps most surprising, not a drop of rain fell on us. Hector the Frisbee King is captured mid-catch.

beach view 1

beach frisbee catch

I was also away for half of January, so the break has meant the weather has not quite been able to grind me down thus far. I also have come to the realization that I have to be pragmatic and accept that my aim of regular blogging will be challenging this year and I anticipate more erratic and less frequent posts, not least because I am away for a period again at the end of this month and we hope to start renovating the house thereafter.

The planned house renovation continues to grind along at a glacial pace. We have experienced delays that were not anticipated as a consequence of what should perhaps politely be described as differences of opinion between ourselves and planners / building control about the design and layout or the substantial re-modelling and extension of our crumbling croft house.  Thankfully, these issues now seem to resolved (we hope) and we can now begin to make tangible progress.

Granite and metal

While away, we took advantage of the opportunity to look at various fixtures, fittings and finishes we may include in our renovated home.  We had a productive day in Glasgow visiting stonemason yards to select a slab of granite for the bling large island that will form the centrepiece of the kitchen. Job done, we went to see groove metal titans, Lamb of God at the 02 Glasgow Academy in the evening.

We chuckled at the ironic dichotomy of our daytime middle-aged middle class exploits to locate granite and discuss soft furnishings for our renovation project versus the fret-melting aural assault of the evening metal gig.

Lamb of God did not fall short of our expectations, delivering a set of unrelenting brutality and vitality, much to the delight of the typically good-humoured metal-loving audience. The 2,500 capacity venue is an old Art Deco cinema in the Gorbals area of Glasgow’s south side.  It stands in isolation on the road, the Art Deco features having saved it from demolition, unlike the buildings that once stood around it. The venue is a gap filler between small intimate venues like King Tut’s and big hangars like the awful SECC.  It was a well-chosen venue for this sold out gig. I captured the atmosphere of the gig with a few video clips. One is below. Warning: it is a bit sweary.

It’s the first gig I have been to for quite a few years where my ears were ringing afterwards, I think probably due to the awful set up for one of the support bands (who never seem to have the benefit of the mixing desk) resulting in mic feedback of scratchy ear-spitting delivery. I recall gigs in the 80’s and early 90’s were often unbearably, painfully loud (literally), until decibel limits were reigned in a bit, much to the benefit of the audience.

Age concern?

The audience had a diverse age range, perhaps not surprising given Lamb of God have been around for 20 years or so, band members being about the same age as us. between them they sported more hair and beardage than the entire audience put together. I must admit, although both The Man Named Sous and I still love going to these heavy gigs, we no longer have the requirement to enter the throng of the ‘pit’, being squashed and ricocheted off bodies to cross this central void in the audience, passing bodies over our heads to reach the front (or indeed, being passed high on a sea of hands ourselves).  In this case, we could predict the massive size of the pit, so big at times it became less dynamic and almost pedestrian. We kept out of the way and enjoyed the whole spectacle from a fantastic elevated spot 1/2 way back.

The benefit of attending these gigs over the years is that you get more relaxed about self-image.  Youth brings out the desire in fans to wear their music on the outside, be it a t-shirt or other typical metal paraphernalia.  While we were waiting in the car to go into the gig (we also no longer queue in the rain until a venue opens), we saw a couple of young guys get out of their very metal 4 x 4 in comfy hoodies and trainers.  They then proceeded to get biker boots and knee-length leather coats out the back of the car and don them before strolling, more credibly, over to the venue across the road.

Those longer in the tooth have of course gone through this and paid the price with heat exhaustion. I was once close to passing out as a result of wearing a fully lined bikers jacket at the front and have had numerous pairs of favourite DMs crushed and scuffed in the affray.  I also had the left sleeve of that battered old bikers jacket completely ripped off at a gig in the 1980’s.  No malice intended! Now we are older and sensible, we deposit coats in the cloakroom, patiently queue at the end to retrieve them and favour t-shirts, comfy jeans and old trainers, should we end up wearing a pint of beer thrown exuberantly in the melee. That said, we still prefer standing gigs, seated gigs being routinely rejected.

Classical misconceptions

Someone recently said to me that they were surprised by my taste in music because I ‘didn’t look like someone who listened to metal’.  WTF?! This left me perplexed and wondering how they think I should look, being a professional woman in my early 40’s. Clichés came to mind: Piercings? Tattoos? Crucifix (large, inverted)? Bullet belt? Spandex? (!). Although The Man Named Sous sports the more credibly clichéd long hair and beard associated with rock generally, he also likes prog rock, yet I have never seen him wear a cape or wizard’s hat and he has no propensity to stick kitchen knives between the keys of our electric piano.

For me, connections between metal and image evoke nightmarish flashbacks to 1980’s ‘hair metal’, dreadful commercial manure I never considered to be part of the metal genre: Poison, Motley Crue, Ratt, etc and all the base banal misogynistic baggage and superficiality that came with that Sunset Strip scene.

Not that I am suggesting for a minute that metal is highbrow. Metal as a genre is often treated as a bit of a joke, labelled as blue collar, often being perceived as frivolous, ludicrous or unsophisticated .  Thrash.  More like trash, I have heard more than once. Some of it certainly is, particularly when OTT mashinations are performed in earnest, but some of it is tongue in cheek.

Understandably, it can be easy to criticise what appears to be, at face value, an unfathomable attrition of noise (sometimes white). Some of it is indeed vacuous or unlistenable.  Cherry picking the best of the very many genres and sub-genres that are labelled as metal (prog, math, groove, black, doom, nu – to name a few). If the wheat is separated from the chaff, some challenging and original gems of motivational music can be discovered (Tool -Ænema; Opeth – Blackwater Park; Mastodon – Crack the Skye). This is highly subjective of course!

Extreme music (encompassing metal) may form the backbone of my music collection, but I do listen to many other genres (with the exception of some forms of jazz), including classical music and opera. Classical music is not so diametrically opposed to aforementioned extreme music.  Parallels can be drawn between the musical and structural complexity: shifting time signatures, inclusion of polyrhythms, prodigious mastery of solo instruments, layers of sound and contrasts of sonic light and shade.

Classical music can be light music, analogous to soft rock (neither are to my taste), or deep and dark e.g. Shostakovitch: Symphony No.5, more akin to black/doom metal, also Wagner, very obviously. It is not therefore uncommon or surprising to find many people who can become immersed in both genres. Interestingly, no one has suggested I have the look of someone who listens to classical music. Further ridiculous clichés are imagined: twin set and pearls, blue rinse….

There is also for some, the pseudo intellectual supposition that classical music is in someway superior, in quality and depth, at least.  I don’t subscribe to this argument. Evidence from opera libretti would suggest subject matter can be banal and literary content as weak as may be surmised for other musical genres.  I have had the unfortunate experience of mistakenly buying opera tickets for performances where the libretto was translated into English instead of being displayed in translation by supertitles. A ruined experience indeed. I can accept the ludicrous plots and extreme melodrama of wonderful Italian opera for the entertainment that it is. This forgiveness comes from hearing a libretto sung in the language that it was originally intended.

While I draw these parallels here (and I’m not the first to do so), my personal and singular distinction between classical and metal is motivational.  The emotion and power of Elgar’s cello concerto in E minor, Op. 85 is undeniable, but only the driving and relentless tempos of bands like Lamb of God and Pantera can make me run faster.  Both should be credited for my improving 10 km pace.  No matter how loud I crank up Bach’s Double Violin Concerto, I know it would not achieve my continually improving pace….

Mussels in tarragon and pastis cream

I have discussed collection and cleaning of mussels in detail in a previous post when I prepared the classic Moules Marinière. Here, this dish is best served as canapés or light starter as it is pretty rich. For those regularly following my blogs, the addition of pastis to the recipe will come as no surprise – it is one my all time favourite and much used accompaniments for fish and shellfish.

Ingredients

1kg of mussels, cleaned

splash of olive oil

2 shallots, finely chopped

1 clove of garlic, sliced

50 ml of pastis e.g. Pernod

a few grinds of pepper

200 ml or so reserved mussel cooking liquid

3 tbsp fresh tarragon, chopped

100 ml double cream (optional)

Method

  • Put a glug of olive oil in a large pan with the shallots and garlic, fry gently to soften for 5 minutes.
  • Add the pastis and allow the alcohol to evaporate off before adding the mussels.
  • 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, taking care to leave the last of it in the pan, lest it contain some grit.  You should have about 200 ml. Reduce this down slightly, by about 1/3.
  • Add the double cream and bring to the boil and simmer for a few minutes to reduce,  thicken.  Add the chopped fresh tarragon. Season with pepper.
  • While the sauce is reducing, etc, loosen the mussels and place each on the half shell, ready to receive a topping of the tarragon and pastis cream.
  • Top each mussel with a generous spoonful of sauce.  Place under the grill for a few minutes, or in a hot oven for 10 mins (180C) and serve with your finest homemade crusty bread.

mussels with pastis and tarragon

First Forage of 2013 – meteors and mussels

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

Wild mussels on the west side of North Uist

Wild mussels on the west side of North Uist

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.

Mussels cleaned, barnacles and beards removed

Mussels cleaned, barnacles and beards removed

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.

Moules Marinière

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.

Ingredients

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)

Method

  • 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.

Moules mariniere

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…

Ingredients

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

Method

  • 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.

Sun blush tomato and thyme foccacia

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.

Ingredients

1kg mussels, cleaned

3 leeks

150g chorizo (not hot)

40g butter

2 glasses Noilly Prat

450g potatoes

150 ml double cream

2 bay leaves

4 sprigs of thyme

handful of chopped parsley

Method

  • 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.

Mussel and leek chowder