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The Poor Man’s Oyster

Mussels in White Wine and Garlic

By Tim Hazell

Mussels are members of several families of bivalve Mollusca from saltwater and freshwater habitats. The word “mussel” is most frequently used to mean the edible varieties of the marine family Mytilus, living on exposed shores in intertidal zones, attached by means of their strong byssal threads (fibrous structural tissue) or “beards” to a firm support. A few species have colonized hydrothermal vents in deep ocean ridges.

Mussel farmers may collect naturally occurring marine mussel seed for transfer to more appropriate growing areas. However, most North American mussel farmers rely on hatchery-produced seed or “spat.” The seed is typically reared in a nursery environment, where it is transferred to a material with a suitable surface for later relocation to a growing area.

There is a variety of techniques for growing mussels, such as “Bouchot” culture, where pilings, known in French as bouchots, are planted at sea. The mussels grow on ropes tied in a spiral to the pilings. Mesh netting prevents the mussels from falling away. “On-bottom” culture is based on the principle of transferring mussel seed from ocean bottom areas where they have settled naturally to places where they can develop in lower densities, facilitating growth rates and predation control. “Raft” culture is commonly used throughout the world. Lines of rope mesh “socks” are seeded with young mussels and suspended vertically from a raft.

In Italy, mussels are added to other sea food or prepared in white wine and herbs. In Spain, they can be eaten as tigres, using the mussel meat, shrimps, and pieces of fish in a thick bechamel, then breaded and fried in a clean mussel shell. They are also common in pickling brine made of oil, vinegar, peppercorns, bay leaves, and paprika.

Cantonese mussels are steamed in a broth of garlic and fermented black bean. The bivalves are popular in India where they are prepared with breadfruit or filled with rice and spiced coconut paste. In coastal Karnataka, steamed rice balls stuffed with spicy fried mussels are locally known as pachilede pindi.

In central Mexico, raw domestic mussels can be purchased flash-frozen and vacuum-packed in their shells. Fresh mussels should be checked to ensure they are still alive before cooking. Live mussels will shut tightly when disturbed. Open bivalves are dead, and must be discarded.


Mussels in White Wine and Garlic


4 lbs. live or frozen mussels

2 cups dry white wine

4 shallots, finely chopped

4 garlic cloves, finely chopped

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/3 cup mixed fresh herbs such as flat-leaf parsley, dill, or basil, chopped

6 tbsp. butter, cut into pieces



If using live mussels, rinse and scrub under cold water. Remove beards (threads that hang from the mussel shells) and discard. In a large stockpot over medium heat, combine wine, shallots, garlic, and salt. Simmer 5 minutes. Add mussels, cover, and increase heat to high. Cook until mussels open, about 5 minutes. Stir in herbs and butter. Remove from heat. Divide mussels and broth among four bowls. Serve immediately.


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