Working Out for our MusselsOctober 30, 2013
The current widespread interest in foraging for food took me back in time to my family’s attempts at the hunter/gatherer lifestyle.
Cockatoo Island in Sydney Harbour was a hub of industrial activity when we lived in nearby Balmain in the mid 1960s. The action on the island’s shipbuilding facilities was easily matched by what was happening underwater.
Word had gotten out that the enormous wooden pylons were bursting with mussels and my parents wanted in on the action. They had grown up in an Adriatic seaside city eating mussels, vongole and ‘canocie’ (sea cicadas) and were willing to work for their supper while mussels were unavailable in Sydney shops. Restaurateur Beppi Polese, who put them on the menu at his famous Darlinghurst eatery Beppi’s in the late 1950s, was also forced to forage for them in the harbour.
With a small timber row boat we hired from a nearby boatshed, we were on our way across the Parramatta River for the 20 minute trip to mussel HQ. No lifejackets, sunscreen, water – just hessian sacks for the haul. And the special mussel harvester invented by my handyman dad.
Ever the practical one, he’d fashioned a piece of fine wire mesh into a bucket shape and attached it to the bottom of a metal garden rake. At our harvesting point, my mother and I stood at one end of the shaky boat holding onto a pylon while my father lowered the rake deep into the water. A few scrapes on the upward sweep and the mesh collected all the loosened mussels. Genius.
Three or four sackfuls later, we’d head home, with my father doing most of the rowing while I nursed the scratches and bumps on my limbs. The homeward journey seemed to take forever, with the heavy boat from the mussel haul making my father work harder to dodge the motor boats zooming past.
Back at the shore, we drew stares and unsavoury language from many of the Anglo Australian fishermen who thought the mussels were not fit for human consumption. Their loss. Along with family friends and neighbours we ate them stuffed, steamed, crumbed and fried, added to a risotto, tossed into a pot of pasta.
I knew mussels were tenacious, but was amazed to read that the liquid protein they secrete to grip onto wet surfaces is so powerful it could be developed into surgical glue for complicated surgeries. Best to cook them then, rather than eat them raw.
One of my favourite ways to eat them is stuffed and baked in the oven (muscoli or ‘pedoc’i al pangrattato). Scrub and de-beard the mussels, open and assemble the mussel meat into one half-shell. Meanwhile make a mixture of breadcrumbs, chopped garlic and parsley, salt and pepper. Pile a mound of stuffing on each mussel, drizzle with good olive oil and bake for 15 minutes or until golden brown. You’re now in mussel heaven.