Probably the most misspelled name in the history of menu writing, although mayonnaise will run it a close second. On virtually every Soho menu twenty years ago, the dish seems to have died in popularity, or probably everyone who wants to eat moules is piling into Belgo in Covent Garden, where I understand they serve little else. (My one attempt to eat at Belgo was aborted on being informed that there was a 30-minute wait in the queue.) The Old Compton Wine Bar always had two mussel dishes on the menu in winter: a soup rejoicing in the name of Potage Billy-By, stolen by me from Maxim’s, and this most delicious dish.
Most mussels these days are cultivated and purified in carefully controlled tanks. The technique was developed, I believe, by the Dutch. Like so many of this ingenious nation’s recent contributions to gastronomy the mussels look perfect and taste of absolutely nothing. The French have cultivated mussels for centuries by attaching bits of rope or twine to posts in tidal estuaries and waiting for the bivalves to establish a colony by hanging grimly on. These mussels are called moules bouchots, and I recommend you try them. Unfortunately they are expensive and almost impossible to obtain in Britain, so save them for your next trip to France. Large wild British mussels are becoming harder and harder to find as well. Our coastline is covered in literally millions of tons of them, but the same coast is also generously served with sewage outfalls and other flavour enhancers. People in remote areas like the west coast of Ireland can, I think, pick and eat mussels with impunity; the rest of us should be more cautious. The quality of British cultivated mussels has gone up in recent years; they have the enormous advantage of coming ready cleaned and are the only realistic option.
Select mussels that have virtually no smell and are tightly closed, and discard any that seem unduly heavy. Open mussels may be fine, providing they close smartly when you give them a firm tap on the shell. Heavy mussels are usually empty shells that have somehow got full of mud. Scrape off any barnacles and pull away the little beard. Mussels should be prepared at the last minute; they don’t like having their beard pulled out and they start to perish rather quickly. Now wash thoroughly: there is no point in soaking mussels in fresh water, sprinkling them with oats or breadcrumbs, this merely serves to make the mussels ill. They keep much better in their natural state, full of their own sea water. (Cultivated mussels come ready to cook, but you should still apply the above criteria.)
You will need a pan that is wide enough to hold the mussels without stacking them more than two deep, and it should have a lid. If you use a smaller pan, the mussels will cook unevenly, those on the bottom being done long before those on the top. Place the mussels, garlic and wine in the pan and cook on a high flame for 2 minutes. Holding the pan and its lid firmly in place, give them a really good shake. Add the parsley and cream and boil for a minute more. Check that the vast majority of the mussels have opened; if not, continue cooking until they are.
Serve immediately, ladling the mussels and their liquor into soup plates. Mussels rarely need any salt and I don’t add pepper either.
© 1999 Alastair Little. All rights reserved.