The current widespread interest in foraging for food took me back 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. Soon there was talk among the Italian community that the action on the island’s shipbuilding facilities was easily matched by what was happening underwater.
The Italian dockyard workers on the island discovered the enormous wooden pylons under the piers were bursting with mussels. My parents had always eaten mussels in their Adriatic seaside hometown but were missing them in Sydney. They’d only eaten them once at Beppi’s Italian restaurant in Sydney after they heard the restaurant owner, Beppi Polese – also a forager- was rowing out to Middle Harbour’s Spit Bridge in a rubber boat for his supply.
With apologies to Belgian artist Marcel Broodthaers (The Triumph of Mussels, 1965). I couldn’t resist
Determined not to let this opportunity pass, my father was soon making plans to explore this bounty and mild sunny days in autumn or spring would be perfect for the trip. In a small wooden rowboat hired from a nearby boatshed, my dad, mum and I started making our 20-minute trips across the Parramatta River to mussel HQ. I was only seven or eight, but insisted on helping with the rowing. My skinny arms worked hard, but the heavy 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.
My father had 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 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, balancing at the other end, lowered the hand-crafted contraption deep into the water. A few upward scrapes against the timber pylon and the mesh collected all the loosened mussels.
Molluscs produce an amino acid that helps them cling tenaciously to piers, rocks and boat hulls, so this was tough work. Dad was always careful to harvest them 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 we always anticipated a man overboard situation.
Three or four sackfuls (about 30 kilos) later, we’d head home, with my father doing most of the rowing while we nursed our scratches and bruises from hugging the pylons too tightly while he foraged. The homeward journey seemed to take forever and was uncomfortable and cramped with the haul taking up precious leg space. The boat was heavier than it had been during the outward journey, but my father rowed on, dodging passing motorboats and welcoming the occasional splashes of cold water on his white Bonds singlet.
The trip finished, we unloaded the boat on the beach while the Anglo-Australian fishermen shook their heads, yelling to us that 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.
Back at our house, the crowds started gathering. Our family friends had all come round to collect their share, some staying for lunch or dinner. After cold beers, it was time for rinsing off, scrubbing and de-bearding – of the mussels, not the crew. We cooked up a feast and ate 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 wrapped in plastic and paper from a trusted fishmonger but I miss the days of bringing them home in wet hessian sacks, with their distinctive sea-salt 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.
For four people:
2 kgs medium sized mussels ….. 1 cup breadcrumbs ….. 1/2 cup finely chopped parsley ….. 1-2 cloves garlic, finely chopped ….. pinch of salt and freshly ground black pepper ….. 1/4 cup olive oil ….. lemon juice to taste
Preheat the oven to 180°C. Combine breadcrumbs, parsley, garlic, salt and pepper. Scrub mussels well and using a small knife inserted between the shells, open each one and remove beard. Scrape mussel flesh and its water into one shell only and discard other shell. Arrange mussel-filled shells onto baking tray and pile a small amount of breadcrumb mixture onto each, just covering the flesh. Drizzle with olive oil and bake for approximately 10 minutes or until browned. Serve hot with a squeeze of lemon.
(Working out for our Mussels was short-listed in the 2014 Life Writing competition held annually by Melaleuca Blue Publishing. It’s included in an anthology of short stories titled You’ll Eat Worse than that Before You Die published in print and ebook form).