Wild Mussels

Mussel Beach

By Marina Wolf

TODAY’S THE DAY. You can see it in the pale blue sky, you can smell it in the thin late-winter air. You’ve already picked up the fishing license, checked the tide tables online, called about possible bacterial quarantines. You snagged an old pickle bucket from the grocery store in anticipation of your haul. The universe is perfectly aligned to sharpen your appetite for wild mussels. You want them so fresh that you can taste a little grit.

For that you have to hunt them yourself.

On a whim, you and your girlfriend pull over at a fish and tackle shop. Inside, a fresh-faced young woman preps the sandwich counter. She looks as though she’s been wandering the beaches since she washed ashore as a merbaby. She knows where the starfish dance, where the surf is perfect, where the big rocks let you have sex or a bonfire or both without anybody seeing. And yes, she knows where the good mussels are.

Following her directions, you head up the coastal highway for a few miles and pull over at the one conspicuously unmarked beach. Out on the sand, the sun bounces off the waves and warms your skin right away. The tastes of sweat and brine collect on your upper lip. Around a smaller patch of sand on the other side of the rocks, you see the tell tale chalky blue of dried mussel shells above the tide line.

This is the place. …

Pulling the mussels off of their perch is always a struggle. The little strands, or beards, that attach them to the rock are just elastic enough that they seem to break reluctantly. Sometimes, when the mussel just won’t let go, you leave it. It has won the battle. The first time you went out, four years ago, you felt bad about tearing the shellfish away from their home. But then you realized that if you want mussels, someone has to do the uprooting, someone has to keep tugging against the dumb stubbornness.

The collecting is further complicated by razor-sharp barnacles that poke out like crusty fingers among the blue-black mussels. You used to think that the barnacles were a sort of sea disease, or a chemical reaction between a ship hull and seawater, like rust. But barnacles are actual creatures, tender slugs outside of their razor-sharp shells. There’s clearly a symbiotic relationship between barnacles and mussels. The barnacles seem to guard vulnerable gaps between the mussels, which in turn protect the soft barnacle flesh, at least until a determined gatherer breaks the chain.

As you wander among the rocks, a honeymooning couple pauses in their romantic stroll to watch you in amazement. “Are those good eatin’?” the woman asks doubtfully. There’s always some couple from the heartland that cannot believe what you are doing. You laugh to yourself about the stories they must carry back: “Well, Maryanne, you wouldn’t believe what those Californians do! They pull things right off the rocks and eat them!”

AFTER AN HOUR or so, you have 60 or 70 mussels, enough for a real feed for two. Before you clamber back over the rocks, you tap the mussels that are open to make sure they’re still alive. Most of them shut, slowly. The ones that don’t respond you throw back into the surf. On the way back you stumble across the honeymooners, making out in a little cove that isn’t quite isolated enough for their purpose (obviously they didn’t talk to the fishing-shack mermaid).

Back home, you wash the mussels in a tap-water bath. They’re all closed up tight, no surprise. As nasty as seawater is to us freshwater-drinking mammals, so must a basin of tap water be truly vile to these creatures who have lived in the crashing surf all their lives.

The cooking medium is a big pan with two to three inches of liquid. The books say wine or water; you think the leftover of last night’s champagne is a fair interpretation. A pat of butter, a bay leaf. You heat the fluid to a boil and spoon the mussels in, then cover and cook for about five minutes. The mussels are done when their shells all crack open.

Setting the table for this meal is easy: the tray heaped with mussels, a pan for the shells, plates to drip over, two little cups of melted butter seething with crushed garlic, plates to drip over. A loaf of crusty sourdough, bought on the way home. The broth from the pan you ladle out to drink on the side.

Forks lie idle at the side of the plates. This feast is for the fingers: rip the bread, pry open the shells, pull out the lipped orange flesh and extract the beards, then dip them in the garlicky butter. The dull orange flesh is tender and rich, melting together with the butter in your mouth.

Your girlfriend shells half a dozen at once and throws them all into her butter–“to swim around in”–then lays them out one by one on pieces of bread. Your chins get shiny from the butter. An old chardonnay from the fridge washes down the briny mouthfuls until your plates are empty and the shell pan is full.

Sigh …

From the March 4-10, 1999 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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