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 via some Italian dockyard workers on the island that the enormous wooden pylons under the piers were bursting with mussels and my parents wanted in on the action. In their Adriatic seaside hometown, they had grown up eating mussels, vongole and ‘canocie’ (sea cicadas) and here, in Sydney, were willing to work for their supper while mussels were still unavailable in shops. Italian restaurateur Beppi Polese, who put them on the menu at his well-respected inner-Sydney eatery Beppi’s in the late 1950s, was also a forager. He’d row out to Middle Harbour’s Spit Bridge in a rubber boat, collect his bounty and take them back to his restaurant.
Mild sunny days in autumn or spring were perfect for our mission, and in a small wooden row boat hired from a nearby boatshed, my dad, mum and I were on our way across the Parramatta River for the twenty-minute trip to mussel HQ. I was only about seven or eight, but insisted on helping with the rowing, my skinny arms trying to slide the oar just under the surface of the water. The long, solid timber oars soon had me struggling. We wore no lifejackets, sunscreen, or hats – and carried no 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. When we reached our destination at the island, my mother and I stood at one end of the boat, steadying it with our arms wrapped around a pylon while my father lowered the hand-crafted contraption deep into the water while playing a balancing game at the other end. A few scrapes against the timber pylon with an upward sweep and the mesh collected all the loosened mussels.
This was no mean feat as the molluscs produce an amino acid that helps them cling tenaciously to piers, rocks and boat hulls. He was always careful to harvest them from deep in the water as he thought they were less likely to be contaminated by fuel spills. This determination to deliver us from food poisoning had him leaning so far out of the boat that we always anticipated a man overboard situation.
Three or four sackfuls (or about 30 kilos) later, we’d head home, with my father doing most of the rowing while we nursed scrapes and welts on our limbs from hugging the pylons while he foraged. The homeward journey seemed to take forever, and was also more cramped with the haul taking up precious leg space. With the additional weight of the mussels in the boat, my father had to work harder to dodge the motor boats zooming past and the occasional splashes of cold sea water on his white Bonds singlet seemed more than welcome.
Back at the shore, we drew stares and much salty language from some of the Anglo Australian fishermen who thought the mussels were not fit for human consumption. My parents told me not to worry about ‘gli Australiani’ and reassured me it was their loss.
A family friend with a car helped transport the catch to our house up the hill from the boatshed, and was generously rewarded with a sackful of mussels to take home. After a cold beer for dad and shandies for the female helpers, it was time for some rinsing off, scrubbing and de-bearding. In the evening, family friends and Italian neighbours gathered to help us eat them: stuffed, steamed, crumbed and fried, added to a risotto, tossed into a pot of pasta. With plenty of leftovers, we were in mussel heaven for days.
These days I buy mussels from a trusted fishmonger but I miss the days of bringing them home in wet hessian sacks, with their distinctive wet dog smell.
One of my favourite ways to eat them is as the Venetians do – stuffed and baked in the oven and called Muscoli (or ‘pedoci’) al Pangrattato.