Answering the call of the wild mussel

Blue, alive, freshly delivered: Jacob Richler samples the first mussels of the season


Reena Newman

Last week, the first wild Irish blue mussels of the season arrived at Toronto’s Starfish Oyster Bed & Grill to customary fanfare—a crowd of expectant, hungry customers numbering approximately three. The reasons for the modest turnout are easily explained: even in these seasonally attuned and provenance-focused times no one seems to remember we ever had a mussel season. For decades, the national taste has embraced rope-cultured mussels from P.E.I., a cheap, quality product available freshly harvested throughout the year.

Like all cultured mussels, those from P.E.I. lead a sedentary, well-fed life and so are always pleasantly plump. As they are raised in mesh socks, and dangle in armchair comfort above the sea floor rather than moving hungrily about in its sand and dirt, their unpalatable byssal threads—or beards—are rendered conveniently thin and slight from disuse. What’s more, that perch encourages them to maintain a living quarters that is clean and grit-free, in unwitting consideration of their future sauce.

Convenience aside, however, some perceive the cultured mussel to possess an aura of blandness akin to sliced white bread. The larger-size grades increasingly favoured by restaurants have a soft, flabby mouth feel that can make one yearn for the more intense flavour of their smaller, firmer wild brethren.

Or so I had been thinking, anyway. Which is why I was one of the three customers at Starfish waiting for a taste of the first wild mussels of the season. I was there with two salespeople from the Toronto-based fish and seafood wholesaler Daily Seafood, Julie Dimenna and Susan Anderson, to assess how the Irish mussels measured up in a blind taste test.

Alas, the green-lipped mussels from New Zealand had been delivered to the restaurant frozen, so we disqualified them. That left us with four other samples, all of them blue, alive and freshly delivered that same day. We had cultured blues from B.C.’s Saltspring Island, Maine’s Bar Harbor and Frenchman Bay, and finally, P.E.I.; its cultured blues are now industry standard (the annual crop is currently more than 18,000 tonnes—around 70 per cent of North American production).

Starfish chef Adam Moon elected to keep the preparation as simple as possible, steaming an identically sized sample of each type of mussel in plain water. Then restaurant owner Patrick McMurray lined up the numbered samples on the bar, and we all tucked in and made notes.

Generally speaking, wild mussels are identifiably different from their farmed brethren because their shells are textured with barnacles and other unsightly hangers-on. They are also substantially thicker, and battered and worn at the edges where the cultured variety are smooth. While picking out wild samples was easy when assessing their shells, doing so on the far more important basis of the meat inside proved elusive.

One sample received a unanimous thumbs-down from the three of us operating in darkness: the flesh of the mussel was watery, bland and flaccid. To our considerable surprise, McMurray eventually revealed that this was the most expensive of our selection, the wild mussel from Ireland. McMurray reasoned that it was “early in the season yet; they had a very hot summer, and I can only think they’ll get better as it gets colder.”

In the meantime, there was unanimous enthusiasm for the cheapest of the mussels—the one from P.E.I. The B.C. mussel—at triple the cost—was the clear loser all around for its flabby texture and off-putting sweetness. The firmest and most agreeably textured mussels were those in the middle price range, from Maine; each had a briny, salty quality, appropriate for something harvested from the sea. Differences in flavour between the two were subtle—likely because they are reared in the same water, at the same depth. The other lingering lesson of the day was to never cook mussels in plain water, for wherever they hail from and whatever they cost, mussels need a little extra boost of flavour: wine, beer, garlic, thyme—anything.

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