MUSSELS have been eaten for at least 20,000 years and have been cultivated since the early 13th century. The first commercial farming was by a shipwrecked Irishman, Patrick Walton, who went aground in the bay d'Aiguillon, France, in 1235. After being rescued by the inhabitants, he resorted to hunting seabirds for a living. This involved stretching nets between wooden poles driven into the beach. But it was the multitude of mussels that attached themselves to the ropes that intrigued Walton,
The Blue mussel is the most common breed found in Scotland, although there are also horse mussels, or clabbie dubhs – from the Gaelic clab-dubh, meaning large, black mouth.
Mussels should only be collected from unpolluted waters between September and March, and left alone during the height of summer. A good guideline for molluscs or shellfish is to eat them only when there is an 'r' in the month. They are at their plumpest before they spawn, around the end of February.
To prepare, wash thoroughly in fresh water, scrubbing the shells and removing the stringy beards. I like to put them in a large pan or bucket of fresh water and sprinkle a little oatmeal or flour on top. The mussels "feed" on this and disgorge any sand at the same time. Throw away any that float to the top, those that are damaged and ones that do not close after cleaning – they could be toxic.
Mussels are usually cooked quickly at a high temperature, usually by steaming in a little liquid in a closed container. Mussels are traditionally sold in pints, which equates to a pound or 450g. Allow half to one pint per person, depending on the course or volume of other ingredients in the dish.
1 Mussels steamed in beer
1 tbsp olive oil; 1-2 shallots, peeled and finely chopped; 1 clove garlic, peeled and crushed; 1kg mussels, cleaned; 1 bottle beer; 2-3 tbsp parsley, finely chopped
Heat a large pan and add the oil. Add the shallots and garlic and cook for one minute. Add the mussels and the beer. Mix, then turn up the heat and put the lid on. Cook, shaking the pan now and again, until all the mussels have opened. Discard any that remain closed. Spoon into bowls with the juices, sprinkle with parsley and serve with crusty bread.
2 Thai steamed mussels
2kg mussels, cleaned; 75ml fresh lime juice; 1 can unsweetened coconut milk; 75ml dry white wine 1 tbsp Thai red curry paste; 2 garlic cloves, minced; 1 tbsp nam pla (Thai fish sauce); 1 tbsp sugar; large bunch fresh coriander, chopped
Combine the lime juice, coconut milk, wine, curry paste, garlic, fish sauce and sugar in a large pan. Bring to the boil over a high heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar and curry paste, then simmer for two minutes. Add the mussels and cook, shaking the pan occasionally, for five minutes – until the mussels open. Pour into a bowl and toss with the coriander to serve.
3 Sicilian mussel pasta
2kg mussels, cleaned; 2 tbsp olive oil; 4 garlic cloves, finely chopped; 2 shallots, finely chopped; 1 red chilli, deseeded and finely chopped; 8 plum tomatoes, cut into eighths; 175ml white wine; 300g pasta, fusilli or rotini; juice of 1 lemon; 15g basil, torn
Heat the oil in a large pan. Add the shallots, garlic and chilli and saut until soft. Stir in the tomatoes and wine and cook gently until reduced. Cook the pasta and drain. Season the sauce and add sugar if it is too sharp. Add the mussels and cook with a lid on for about five minutes, until the mussels open. Moisten the pasts with a little cooking liquor and a dash of olive oil. Serve the mussels over the pasta, garnished with torn basil.
4 Mussel and onion stew
1kg mussels; 150ml dry white wine; 25g butter; 2 large onions, skinned and chopped; 25g plain wholemeal flour; 300ml milk; 2 tbsp parsley, finely chopped; 3 tbsp single cream
Put the wine in a large pan and bring to the boil. Add the mussels and cook with a lid on for five minutes, until they open. Drain the mussels over a bowl, reserve the juices and remove the shells. Melt the butter in the rinsed pan and cook the onions for ten minutes, until soft and beginning to caramelise. Add the flour and cook, stirring, for a minute. Gradually add the milk and reserved juices, stirring until the sauce thickens and is smooth. Simmer for two minutes. Return the mussels to the pan with the parsley and cream and reheat gently. Season and serve with crusty bread.
5 Steamed margarita mussels
1 tsp olive oil; red pepper, diced; small onion, diced; 125ml tequila; 50ml triple sec; 50ml water; 1 lime, juiced; 1kg mussels; 25g coriander, chopped
Heat the oil in a large pot and saut the pepper and onion, stirring for five minutes. Stir in the tequila, triple sec, water and lime juice and bring to the boil. Add the mussels and coriander. Steam for five minutes, shaking the pan occasionally, until all the mussels are open. Serve in bowls.
• This article was first published in Scotland on Sunday on 07 February 2010