Conwy Mussels, North Wales
In the culinary context we may associate mussels far more with Brittany and Belgium than Britain, which would be a mistake. Mussels indeed were an important source of protein for our prehistoric ancestors, as demonstrated by the abundance of shells in some ancient middens.
Arguably the best mussels in Britain come from Conwy , on the North Wales Coast. For a time it was more for the possibility of finding tiny pearls in the beautiful darkest blue shells that drove the mussel fisheries there – legend has it that a Conwy pearl is part of the Crown Jewels, though if it is of any size it would have been more likely to have come from one of the larger freshwater mussels from the river there.
Mussel fishing – by permit – continues in the area to this day, and the tanks used for purifying the creatures can be seen in what doubles as processing plant and mussel museum . And on the quay you will find a lovely sculpture by Graeme Mitcheson which makes the most of the shell’s form and the way mussels attach themselves in numbers to ropes and seaweed stalks.
Today we are more likely to cook mussels as the French would, steamed at the bottom of a big pan in a little white wine, shallot and garlic, the juice (carefully poured off any grit) perhaps thickened with cream after the cooked mussels have been removed. I can think of no food which smells better in the cooking. A more Welsh way is to steam them in water, remove from the shells and fry with some good salty bacon chopped small. Some like to batter and deep fry them too.
Things to note about cooking mussels: make it easy and buy well scrubbed mussels (free of tiny barnacles and limpets); pull off and discard any weed draping out of the shell; discard any cracked or chipped shells; and discard any mussels that don’t open after they have been steamed for a few minutes; and don’t overcook to see if the last few will open – one or two may, but you’ll rubberise them all. Get rid of any minute crabs you find inside too. Sadly over time some of us build up an allergy to mussels – sweating and feeling unwell after eating them. From personal experience this just gets worse, putting the delightful orange morsels permanently off limits.