Steamed Mussels in Ale and Madeira Wine
Humans have consumed mussels since almost the beginning of time. In excavation sites from 20,000 bc, there is evidence that people ate freshwater mussels, river crabs, acorns, other nuts, and plants. Today, almost every country and culture that touches the water seems to have its tradition with this food, especially in the European countries of Belgium, France, the Netherlands, and Spain. Twenty different species of hard shell seafood make up over 2.9 million tons of mussel in annual world production (natural and cultivated). When I think of this seafood item, I always think about Belgium, where moules-frites (mussels and fries) are so popular they are considered a national dish. The mussels are often steamed and bathed in herbs, white wine, and butter and served in large covered bowls along with twice-fried French fries (chips/frites) and a cold beer. Doesn't that sound delicious?!
The native people of North America ate seafood in abundance. There are massive middens (ancient trash heaps) made up almost entirely of shells from mussels and oysters. The middens hold clues not only to ancient cultural practices but also to historical environmental and climatic conditions. At one point, freshwater mussels were eaten extensively; however, we now consider that version undesirable. When the hungry passengers of the Mayflower arrived in the new world within Provincetown Harbor, at the outmost point of Cape Cod, It was said that when the passengers finally started to venture off the ship onto the land, some of the pilgrims found mussels. Overwhelmed by their new surroundings, some pilgrims ate raw mussels and became ill. Unlike other seafood, mussels are not so delicious raw or barely cooked.
In early medieval times, mussels were considered low class and not consumed by high society; however, towards the end of the era, mussels were often included in the grand buffets in court when the event took place on fish days. During Elizabeth of Austria's 1571 ceremonial entry into Paris, mussels were served among the seafood selections, including crabs, salmon, and lobster.
Today in Europe;
Netherlands : sometimes served batter fried,
France: cooked in a simple (but delicious) mussel bake,
Italy: steamed with wine, lemon, and herbs, Spain: gloriously a part of paella in Spain.
When you go beyond the borders of Europe, mussels continue to be a part of a coastal meal.
Turkey: mussels are covered with flour and fried on shishs, and served with beer, Cantonese cuisine: cooked in a broth of garlic and fermented black beans, New Zealand: used in chowder, fritters, or a chili India: shells are filled with coconut paste, spices, and rice
I could go on and on with traditions and how mussels are served worldwide. It is Cornwall, England, that leads me to the recipe. In my cookbook, The Unofficial Poldark Cookbook, based on the BBC period piece show, local food is highlighted in every episode. Cornwall is a seaside county in the southwest corner of England, and mussels are among the abundant seafood options in the region. In one of the episodes, there was a street vendor selling mussels close to the tavern featured in the series, the Red Lion. I used ale as a steaming liquid and Madeira wine as a finishing liquid, two commonly consumed beverages at the time, to create this recipe. I highly recommend getting a loaf of warm, fresh bread because the sauce the ingredients make is worth eating. Enjoy.
2 lb mussels
6 Tbsp butter, unsalted; divided 11⁄2 cup onions; diced
4 cloves garlic, sliced
8 oz beer (we used Stella Artois)
1 Tbsp fresh tarragon, finely chopped
2 Tbsp fresh chives, finely chopped
1⁄4 cup fresh flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
1⁄4 cup Madeira wine
Crusty bread to serve
Rinse and stir the mussels under cold, fresh running water; for any mussels that do not close after rinsing, tap their shells or lightly squeeze them while running under the water again. Throw out any mussels that do not close, as it is a sign that they might not be safe to eat.
Melt 2 Tbsp butter in a deep pan on medium heat. Add and sauté the onions and garlic, cooking until soft.
Add the mussels to the pan, followed by the beer. Cover and turn the heat up to medium-high for 5–7 minutes. Shake the pan periodically to move the mussels around instead of opening the lid and releasing the steam.
Once the mussels open, you are ready to proceed. Remove the lid, lower the heat to medium, and add the remaining 4 Tbsp butter (cut into pats) and herbs. Stir to coat all the mussels.
Once the butter has melted, remove the mussels with a slotted spoon and place them in a deep bowl. Lightly tent with aluminum foil.
Keeping the juices in the pan, turn the heat back to medium-high and add the Madeira wine and a pinch of salt. Stir and reduce the liquid for 3 minutes.
Remove the pan from the heat. Remove the aluminum foil from the mussels. Pour the sauce from the pan over the mussels.
Do not forget to serve with a loaf of crusty bread to sop up the juices.
From the cookbook: In the first season, Ross is walking through the seaport in Truro, attempting to secure investors for his mine. In the background, a large bushel of mussels is being sold by a street vendor. Adding beer or ale to our recipe seemed like the perfect choice, considering that the beverage is served at The Red Lion Tavern, just a short walk away from the seaport.