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Working Out for our Mussels

October 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.

Mussels in Pot

With apologies to Belgian artist Marcel Broodthaers (The Triumph of Mussels, 1965). I couldn’t resist

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.

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11 comments

  1. That brings back wonderful childhood memories! We used to go down to Beaumaris (Melbourne) to forage for peoci. That is until the late 1970s when my father declared that the “bladi vietnamiti” had taken them all!


    • We left Balmain a few years later to go back to Italy temporarily and when we returned to Oz we didn’t have the same easy access to the boat hire, so our pedoci picking came to an end. But I’m sure my father would have had the same attitude as yours! Funny stuff.


      • Yes the seemed to think they were the only ones meant to have access to them! Very funny.


  2. what a great, evocative post. Can almost smell the harbour as you rowed to get the supply of mussels.


    • Thanks, and yes, I can remember the sights and smells so vividly. Even the hessian sacks that we filled with the mussels took on that particular smell.


  3. Your family antics always make me giggle – i love this latest anecdote. What a lovely memory, written and shared with good humour. A great Sunday evening read. Thank you.


  4. Thanks Rachel. Whenever I eat mussels, I’m taken back to the rowing boat and Cockatoo Island in my mind. Aah, simple times.


  5. What a lovely memory – thank you for sharing it. I’ve also heard stories of fishermen thinking Italians were mad for eating calamari, which Australians often used as bait back then. Great reference to Beppi too – I have his book and his restaurant is one of my favourites!


    • Thanks Zoe. Yes, lovely memories of those times. And good old Beppi’s just keeps going … when other Italian restaurants open and close in Sydney, it’s a real stayer. And Beppi himself is approx 84!


  6. Mmmm! Mussels are my 7-yr-old son’s favorite food!


    • Fantastic! I love to see children being adventurous with their food choices. You should be very pleased about your son’s tastes. Thanks for your comments.



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