Cream of Mussel Soup with Saffron

Mussels, if British, used to be big and old and covered in barnacles, or - if you were lucky - imported bouchots brought over from Normandy. Pollution of our native beds and the heavy commercial development of farmed mussels in Holland mean that most of what you can buy today is Dutch. They will have been efficiently cleaned and be of a uniform size, but are not as tasty as the French or British mussels of old. Since shellfish poisoning is potentially fatal, it is perhaps preferable to be philosophical about this slight loss of flavour.

Ingredients

  • 1kg/2¼lb mussels
  • 1 large leek
  • 1 celery stalk or piece of celeriac
  • 1 garlic clove
  • 1 bottle (750ml/27fl oz) of dry white wine
  • 300ml/½pt double cream
  • 12 saffron threads
  • pepper

Utensils

  • lidded pan (large enough to hold all the mussels in a single layer)
  • colander
  • large bowl
  • sieve
  • second saucepan

Method

Mise en Place

Prepare the mussels: with a small sharp knife, beard the mussels and then scrub the shells. Sharply tap any which are open: if they are alive they will close - discard any that do not Don't leave the mussels in water too long as this leaches out the sea salt and makes them tasteless. The best way to keep mussels once washed is to rinse them and put them into a pot covered with damp seaweed and then put a lid on top to prevent evaporation. Your fishmonger will probably have some seaweed if you ask for it.

Chop the vegetables into a fine julienne • Slice the garlic clove.

Cooking

Put the mussels in the pot, pour over the white wine and cover with the lid. Place over a high flame and bring to the boil. Shake the pot vigorously a couple of times to redistribute the mussels and ensure even cooking. They are done when they open. Discard those few which stubbornly remain closed.

Pour the contents of the pan into the colander placed over a bowl to catch the wine and mussel liquor. Pour the liquor through a fine sieve into another pan and put most of it to warm on a low heat. Put some of the liquid in a large clean bowl and shell the mussels into this.

Throw the julienne and garlic into the liquid in the saucepan, add the double cream and bring to the boil. Lower the heat, season with a little pepper, put in the shelled mussels and saffron threads and simmer gently until hot.

Serving

Serve in large warmed soup bowls. You may prefer to serve the mussels in their shells. If so, be even more scrupulous when cleaning the shells.

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