One of the best memories of the summer months and our vacation in Britanny is eating fresh seafood every day - it's really not something I could ever grow tired of, I don't think, especially not with the variety at hand. Langoustines, lobster, mussels, sea spiders, or just plain fish... when it's well prepared (and simple is often best) there's nothing better!
When it comes to the different ways of cooking mussels, I have tried lots of flavours and have always come back to the traditional two: moules marinières (in a variety of interpretations, but essentially involving wine, onion and cream) or moules provençales (in a chunky sauce of onion and tomatoes). In London I have often had mussels at Belgo's, a chain mentioned in every Rough Guide et al. for the discerning traveller. Once you've made it to the front of the enormous queue - no reservations taken - you're led to a vault-type basement restaurant with long communal tables and waiters clad in monks' costumes. They have fabulous deals of a kilo of mussels (you have to search high and low in London to find molluscs of this quality) with accompaniments at roughly £10, fantastic value for a eatery bang on in the middle of London. With more than 15 different flavours to choose from, you're spoilt for choice, and I have tried most of them - Thai, curry, mustard, mushrooms and bacon... the classics always being best. They also boast the largest selection of Belgian beers and you'll find anything from Gueuze in different flavours, to Trappist, white, fruit beer, pilseners and ales. Not that this makes any difference to me, I don't drink there, as their selection of wines by the glass leaves to be desired. (I have been talked into trying their spirits, though, which are being served by the metre, rather than the glass...)
I am not shy to admit that I do enjoy some fries with my mussels at times (standard fare at Belgo's, for obvious reasons), but often a plain baguette will do, especially lovely when mopping up the sauce.
This summer, one of the restaurants we went to (I believe it was somewhere on the South coast, not far from Pont-Aven) the chef did a Spanish-inspired version of moules provençales, by adding some chorizo - a very succeeded variation!
50 Earlham Street
London WC2 9HP
Tel: 0871 2238059
Nearest tube: Covent Garden
2 kg rope-grown mussels*
2 medium onions
300 g chorizo (finely diced)
150 ml sherry
150 ml fish stock
440g-can chopped tomatoes
pepper, freshly chopped parsley
Clean the mussels. First put them in cold water for about 10 minutes, removing any that are broken. If any had opened since you bought them, this should make them close up. Discard any which stay open. Carefully remove the barnacles ("beards"), not by cutting them off, but by gently wrestling with the mussels to release them, otherwise you'll be left with the remainders, including sand, inside the shell. Clean the mussels with a strong brush to get rid of any other oceanic material they may carry on the outside.
Fry the chorizo in a non-stick pot (no oil needed, it will release enough of its own fat), add the onions. Cook until softening. Deglase with the sherry and stock, then add the tomatoes. Throw the mussels in, place a lid on the pot and cook vigorously until all the shells have completely opened. Season with pepper and sprinkle with the parsley.
Serve immediately with some fries or fresh bread, using a pair of mussels as tweezers to remove and eat the mussels and a single shell to spoon up the sauce.
*Being a bit lazy when it comes to cleaning mussels, I find rope-grown easier to handle. They also tend to be meatier, which is always a bonus.