Oysters and scallops may have a more glamorous reputation, and clams may be a popular favorite, but among the bivalve shellfish, cultured mussels get my vote for the best value for your seafood dollar. U.S. per-capita consumption is still so much lower than in Europe. It’s an affordable protein, and a renewable resource.
Where I live, the retail price of live mussels is about the same as for small clams. But where clams yield only 25 to 30 percent of their weight in meat, the thinner-shelled mussels can contain as much as 60 percent edible yield. The flavor of the mussel is also superior (to my taste) to that of clams – more complex and oysterlike. If you have never had smoked mussels, it’s time to treat yourself! Smoked mussels are some of the most popular smoked seafood, as they offer a different taste than other smoked seafoods, such as smoked salmon or mackerel, due to the fact that mussels are a shellfish.
Mussels were one of the first success stories in North American aquaculture, and remain one of the most reliable cultured shellfish. Mussels are farmed in both coasts of the United States, as well as in China and Europe. Most of the production comes from eastern Canada (especially Prince Edward Island), and New England, with other large farms in Washington State, and a smaller amount in California, Chile, and China and New Zealand.
The farming technology comes from western Europe, where cultured mussels have been enjoyed for decades. Most farmers here use the “rope”or “raft” culture typical of northwest Spain, in which small mussels are seeded in mesh tubes, suspended from heavy lines in coastal bays. The mussels require little attention as they feed on drifting plankton, and harvesting is a simple matter of pulling up the lines and stripping off the mussels. You want to ensure your musseles are processed at a sophisticated processing center for a safe, consistent, high quality, superior tasting product.
Depending on who you talk to, the various mussels farmed in North America are either three distinct species, three subspecies of the same species, or simply geographically isolated races of the same species. How much genetic difference beween two populations constitutes a subspecies rather than a race is a subject of constant debate in scientific circles. Taxonomists generally fall into one of two camps: the “splitters”, those who favor increased differentiation into species, and the “lumpers”, who tend toward larger, more comprehensive species, often consisting of many subspecies or races. Scientific names are Mytilus edulis (Blue), Mytilus galloprovincialis (Mediterranean), and Perna canaliculus (Green Shell). Market names are Blues (Pei Mussel), Greenlips, Greenshell, and/or Mediterranean Mussels.
The mussel most widely cultured in eastern North America is the Pei or blue mussel (Mytilus edulis), named for its solidly blue-black shell, or occasional brown shell (there is no difference in their flavor). This species occurs naturally on both sides of the Atlantic from near the Arctic Circle to the Carolinas and the Mediterranean. In the southern part of its European range, it overlaps another type, a paler-shelled mussel found in the Mediterranean Sea and the southwestern coasts of Europe. Some authorities place the Mediterranean type in a seperate species, M. galloprovincialis. The Mediterranean mussels are different from other varieties because they spawn early in the year. By the time July rolls around, they are at their peak, mild and sweet.
On the Pacific coast, the native M californianus was joined a long time ago in the wild by the blue mussels of the “Baltic” type, classified by some as M. trossellus. Demand is also expanding in the niche market for Mediterranean mussels (Mytilus galloprovincialis). In addition to Washington’s production, Maine contributes about 3 million pounds to the domestic mussel supply. Growers raise domestic mussels on ropes suspended from rafts or set bottom seed. Fishermen drag both wild mussels and the mature mussels from seeded beds, landing about 3.4 million pounds of mussels in 2005.
Wild mussels, slow growers than can take 7 to 12 years to reach 2 ½ inches, and live to about 12 years, can be inconsistent with imperfect shells and, if older, can contain pearls. Harvesting from intertidal beds of older, wild mussels, has led to quality problems in the last couple of years for Maine’s wild mussels.
The browner-shelled Mediterranean type arrived somewhat later, probably introduced via the water in ship ballast, and has established itself in the wild in central southern California. Among other locations, it favors offshore oil platforms, where it can produce a substantial crop. The Mediterranean mussel is also easy to farm, and it offers a distinct advantage to Northwestern mussel growers. Oddly enough, given the names, the Baltic mussels are susceptible to dying on a large scale in winter, but the Mediterraneans survive the winter temperatures just fine. But an even bigger advantage for the Mediterranean has to do with its spawning cycle, which influences eating quality. Mediterranean mussels are popular in ethnic markets such as Chicago’s Italian population and Florida’s Cuban population.
Blue mussels (Mytilus edulis), farm-raised on Prince Edward Island, are still the mainstay of the blue mussel market, which also includes farmed and wild blues harvested in Main and specialty blues farmed in the Pacific Northwest.
The third type of mussel is the Pacific Golden Mussel, which is cultured in the pristine marine environment of coastal British Columbia. They are clean, firm and flavorsome, as well as plump and delicious.
Water temperatures have been just right : not too cold last winter, when mussel growth usually slows, and not too warm in summer, which is great news for future supply.
Chile contributes a tiny but growing portion to the import picture. The Chilean supply is year-around, and can expand.
Like other bivalves, mussels are in their best eating condition during the six months or so preceding their spawning season, and at their poorest, during and just after, spawning. Spawning time varies by species and location, with the Eastern mussels and the Baltic type on the West Coast spawning in early summer, and offering their best quality from late fall through spring. Mediterranean mussels, on the other hand, spawn in winter, and are in their prime in the summer, just when the others are pulled off the market.
One might expect farmers to “plant” both varieties to ensure a constant supply, but Washington’s two largest mussel farmers specialize in one or the other; Penn Cove, on Whidbey Island, features the Baltic type, while in southern Puget Sound, Taylor Shellfish, in Shelton, is focusing on the Mediterraneans (more than 1 million pounds).
In terms of mussel production, though, China is king. According to the Food/Agriculture Organization, China produces more than 400,000 metric tons per year of various mussel species, including the two that are very similar to the New Zealand Greenshell, and the North American Blue. If past experience is any measure, Chinese production will expand much faster than the country’s development of new markets.
Other choices for summer and early fall mussels include two varieties from the Southern hemisphere, which are in prime midwinter condition when it is summer in the United States. The best known are the large, strikingly colored greenshell mussels (Perna canaliculus) from New Zealand, which are tasty, but a little big for my taste. New Zealand is the top U.S. supplier of fresh and frozen greenshell, or greenlipped, mussels (Perna canaliculus). Wild and farmed Kiwi product made up 55% of total U.S. mussel imports in 2005, representing 90% of imported frozen mussels, and 59% of imported fresh, wild mussels. A relative newcomer is a Chilean variety, similar in appearance to Eastern blue mussels.
Like all bivalves, mussels must be cooked alive. While the mussel is alive, it has its own defenses against bacteria. Once it dies, however, bacteria can grow quickly to dangerous levels. So the first step in mussel cooking is to inspect the batch for any dead ones. It is normal for some of the mussels in a batch to be open, but they should begin to close when handled. Sometimes when they are very cold, mussels will react slowly. If you press the shell closed, it may spring back slightly, but if it re-opens all the way, it is likely to be dead, so throw it out.
When mussels have matured, they are delivered to the plant, where they are held in saltwater tanks to purge themselves of any sand/grit, then are scrubbed, graded and debearded. The beard (or byssus) is the bundle of thick protein fibres at the narrow end of the mussel. They look like a clump of seaweed sticking out of the shell. These fibres are attached to the mussel’s foot, and they are used to anchor the mollusk to solid objects. The beard is edible, but very tough and not very tasty.
There are several ways to remove the beards. The traditional method is to pull them out with your fingers. This should only be done the moment before you cook the mussels, because it is very traumatic and causes the mussel to go into shock. They will not live for more than a few hours thereafter. A better method would be to trim the beard off with a sharp knife or a pair of scissors. This does not hurt the mussel, and their shelf life will not be shortened. Farmed mussels have their beard trimmed shortly after they are harvested, so it saves you the effort.
The orange mussels are female and the white mussels are male. There is little difference in taste between the two, and it as always a pleasant surprise to see what you find on your plate!
What is the difference between farmed and wild mussels anyway? Does one taste better than the other, and which ones are better for you? The difference between farmed and wild mussels begins with the environment. Wild mussels are gathered from the bottom of the sea, where they have to watch out for crabs, starfish, and other predators. In their defense they grow a tougher, thicker shell. Farmed mussels are grown on vines suspended above the ocean bottom. These mussels do not have to worry about predators, so they spend more time and energy growing body mass instead of growing shell. The result is a mussel with a lighter shell and a plumper, more tender meat. They are therefore a better food value with a higher meat to shell ratio than the wild variety.
The freshest mussels provide the highest quality of taste. It’s very important that you purchase your smoked mussels from a supplier such as Napoleon, who realizes that freshness is key. It is important that your mussels are smoked within hours of being removed from the water. The mussels are then marinated in a brining mixture. They are then smoked. Often, they are packed in soybean oil. Our smoked mussels are fully cleaned, sand free, and debearded. They are available year round.
Mussel marketers these days, are looking to shrimp for inspiration. Value-added mussel products, such as recipe-ready, frozen meats, are the key to unlocking the full potential of the U.S. mussel market, some say, just as peeloing, deveining, and deheading helped make shrimp America’s favorite seafood.
Some people ask us re canned vs. fresh, we tell them beluca cauiar as a canned food too, a preserue, and no one has ever hesitated to treat cauiar as a laxury item… the same care/quality is true for our canned seafood. The can be demonstrated only be telling people what we do, and how we do it, with a lvor at the care/selection that goes into the proparation of each grow, you would not question the quality.
Mussels are the world’s most perfect foods. They are extremely high in proteins, calcium and iron, an excellent source of selenium and Vitamin 12, and a good source of zinc and folate, while being low in fat, and calories. Mussels are also the best shellfish for your heart, containing the highest amount of omega-3s of any shellfish (this is the naturally occurring fatty acid that is believed to lower blood pressure). They are also one of the easiest, tastiest and most economical shellfish.
Counting on Americans to gulp even half as many mussels as Europeans is probably a gamble – at least for now….but enjoy!!