The French language bit:
moule, feminine noun (une moule, la moule, des moules) = mussel (pronounced mool, never say the s in the plural)
I remember in 1965, arriving at my grandparents’ house in Bordeaux in south-western France with my younger brother on one of the hottest days in living memory. My diminutive grandmother, still then a fantastic cook, although she forgot how at the end of her life, trotted out to the fishmonger next door to get fresh mussels, and made us a big panful of moules marinières. Here’s how she did it:
For 4 people as a main course you will need:
- 2-3 litres (or kilos, depending on how they are sold) of fresh mussels
- a bunch of fresh parsley
- 4 plump shallots
- 2 cloves of garlic
- 60gr butter
- a glass or two of dry white wine
- pepper (you shouldn’t need much salt)
A word about buying mussels: there is a season for mussels, which varies depending where you are in the world. Mussels are best and plumpest when they are in season and should be firmly closed when you buy them. There are always a few that are not; these should be discarded. They should be cooked immediately and eaten the day they are bought, from a reputable fishmonger where the fish is fresh, well prepared and on lots of ice. Best not to buy them when it is too hot, best also to have a cold bag to bring them home in.
To prepare mussels, tip them all into the sink, and under running water and with a small sharp knife, check through each and every one. Any that are broken or that do not close promptly when you press them shut, throw in the bin. Debeard them by pulling on the bit of weed that comes out of one side of the shell with the knife. As you prepare them, put the clean ones into a colander. It doesn’t matter much if, after sorting them, any of the ones in the colander open up. They were closed a short while ago, and are about to be cooked. If any mussels have barnacles on the outside of their shells, scrape them off.
Peel and chop the shallot and garlic. Wash and chop the bunch of parsley.
In a very large pan, over moderate to high heat, put the butter, the shallot and garlic and a little pepper. Add the glass of wine and boil briskly to reduce a little and soften the shallot and garlic. (You can also use good quality wine vinegar instead of wine if you wish, they are very good that way too and in fact that is how I usually cook them.) Add the mussels all in one go, put the lid on the pan, and shake quite vigorously. Cook for a minute or two, raising the lid to see if the mussels are opening, stir to bring the bottom mussels up to the top and distribute the shallot evenly. Add the parsley and a couple of grinds of the pepper mill. You should not need to add salt. Put the lid back on, stir again, and as soon as all the mussels are open, serve without delay. There is NOTHING worse than an overcooked, shrivelled mussel. They should be steamed in their own liquid, just open, and very moist. Ladle into large individual bowls with some of the liquid, and keep the unserved ones warm.
Don’t use forks to eat mussels, choose a largish shell, remove and eat the mussel, and then use that shell as an eating iron, pinching and grabbing successive mussels with it. And to save space, don’t just chuck your shells into a bowl, pile them up neatly as in the photo below.
Don’t forget to spoon up the juice or to pump it up with pieces of fresh bread. Serve the mussels with chips (French fries) as the Belgians do (the French copy them more and more). Moules frites you will see that on menus all over France.