Have a beach of a time with mind over mussels

Friday, 20 August 1999

The New England coast south of Martha’s Vineyard (near where John Fitzgerald Kennedy Junior lost his marbles) is salted and peppered with islands, many of them with pebble beaches. The presence of these pebbles has meant death for thousands of mussels which inhabit those Atlantic waters.

Seagulls grab the mussels — which think themselves safe within their shellfish equivalent of high walls and electric fences — and soar into the sky to drop the mussels from a dizzy height onto the pebbles. Shells give way before the laws of physics, the seagulls swoop down and have a good meal, and the likes of myself and Ryland Fisher (who landed the good sailing ship Muriel upon some of those shores) curse the amount of broken shells underfoot.

Mussels are cool food. They’re upmarket and streetwise at the same time. The streetwise way to cook mussels is to boil ’em in sea water on an open fire at the beachfront. When the water begins to boil and the shells pop open, share and enjoy.

Boys, your girlfriends will see you as the great hunter-gatherer and will throw their underwear at you.

Girls, your boyfriends will see all sorts of exciting possibilities in the way you click those shells together and will throw their underwear at you.

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Either way, the underwear is good for keeping the fires going long afterwards. But I digress…

To go the upmarket route, toss into a saucepan a cup of fresh cream, a cup of dry white plonk (no, Mrs Jones, save the chardonnay unless you particularly like woody seafood), a teaspoon of crushed garlic, a sprinkling of fresh ground black pepper, a pinch of salt and as many mussels in the shell as you can submerge.

Simmer until it looks right (the shells will pop open, and the wine/cream/garlic/pepper will look like a fine French sauce). Turn out into individual silver dishes, garnish with a sprig of parsley, serve with thin slices of toast.

If you think your guests might turn up their noses at toast, you can substitute expensive wheat crackers with European-sounding names. Or you could be really clever and serve toast but call it something like “crostini al forno” which you got from that simply lovely new deli in Franschhoek. Personally, I think you’d be better off with other guests.