The backup seafood
Ed Alcock for The New York Times
On a beach in western France, fresh mussels finish
roasting on a bed of pine branches. They are eaten
with just bread and butter.
A Passion for Mussels
By JULIA MOSKIN
Published: August 23, 2006
ÎLE DE RÉ, France
THE few Americans who come to this scrubby Atlantic island all seem to describe it the same way. It’s “the French Nantucket,” according to New Englanders, or “Francehampton” to New Yorkers, who feel at home with its combination of lively beach towns, sandy potato fields, washed-blue skies and shellfish shacks.
The Île de Ré is about two miles out from the city of La Rochelle, and about 3,300 miles east of Portland, Me. The terrain may seem familiar, but once you sit down at one of the island’s restaurants, you know you’re not in the United States.
That’s because while clams and oysters are the stars of summer in New England, this region, the Charente-Maritime, is besotted with mussels. Yes, there are oyster bars and clam shacks on the beach that rival Maine’s finest, where the shellfish are cracked open and served raw, so fresh from the water that you can see them recoil from a squeeze of lemon.
But it’s local mussels that show up when villages here host big public dinners — the equivalent of pancake breakfasts — in the town square, like the “Fête Moules Frites” held in La Couarde-sur-Mer during the Bastille Day holiday weekend this year.
And mussels, not clams, are the primary ingredient for the local version of the New England clambake. Éclade de moules is a kind of ritualized mussel-roast, which can be as simple as a family beach picnic or can be expanded to feed hundreds for a wedding. It takes patience and steady hands to arrange the mussels in the traditional pattern of concentric circles. But other than that, it’s the simplest dish imaginable.
“For the real éclade de moules,” said a shellfish dealer at the Thursday market in the island town of Ars-en-Ré, “all you need is mussels, pine needles and bread and butter.”
The mussels are arranged on a plank of pine that has been soaked in seawater, then covered with pine branches or grape vines that are set alight. In about five minutes, the smoldering branches are swept away, leaving behind a bracing aroma and mussels filled with smoky meat.
Beyond éclade, mussels are on every menu, most often steamed open in white wine and seawater and finished with spoonfuls of crème fraîche. On the coast, the favorite dish is mouclade, in which mussels are steamed open and their top shells are removed, and then they are drowned in a succulent, curry-spiked cream sauce.
posted by Steve @ 4:20:00 AM