I am in France spending a large part of the summer with my family at my sister’s beautiful, old, and very run down farmhouse in northern Brittany.
While New York was smouldering under the heat last week everyone in France complained about the cold, and here, too, temperatures have hovered around 18°C (65°F) and it rains more often than not. But no one complains. Northern Brittany is known for blustery weather and beautiful coastlines, and we’ve been enjoying both.
Food-wise, beyond crêpes and savory buckwheat galettes – Brittany’s most famous culinary exports – the region has fresh fish and seafood in abundance, is famous for artichokes and pink onions, breeds pigs, and bakes far and kouign amann for dessert. This of course being just a cursory list. We’ve been enjoying all of that, too.
But first, mussels.
I forget how easy it is to cook mussels so I don’t make them often in New York, but here mussels are not only on every market but also on the beach, and on all of our minds. This is one of the most basic traditional French preparation: moules marinières, or sailor’s mussels, with shallots and wine wine. Add cream (as I do here) and they become ‘moules à la crème.’
Serves 4 as a main dish (count 1 lb of mussels per person)
4 lbs (2 kg) mussels*
2 cloves garlic
3 Tbsps butter
3-4 sprigs fresh thyme
2/3 cup (200 ml) crisp white wine such as muscadet
2-3 Tbsps crème fraîche
Freshly ground black pepper
Large bunch flat-leaved parsley
Thoroughly scrub the mussels clean, wash them under clear water, and drain.
Peel and thinly dice the shallots. Peel and thinly slice the garlic. Wash and finely chop the parsley and reserve for later.
In a large cooking pot, melt the butter with a dash of olive oil. Add the shallots, and cook until they become translucent. Add the garlic, stir, and cook for another minute. Throw in the sprigs of parsley and stir again to combine the flavors.
The shallots shouldn’t turn brown. As soon as they start to turn golden, pour in the white wine and bring to a boil. Simmer for 4-5 minutes.
Add the mussels, cover with a lid, and turn up the heat. As soon as the lid starts to let off some steam, take the pot off the fire and, firmly, with both hands, shake it with a few gentle jerks in order to turn the mussels inside the pot.
Place the mussels back onto the stove for a few minutes more. Most of the mussels should be open. If not, jerk the mussels again and return to the stove.
Once the mussels are open, transfer them carefully with a straining ladle to a warm pot or bowl for serving.
Place the coking pot with the shallot/wine sauce back onto the fire. Stir in the crème fraîche (I prefer the sauce to become milky and not creamy, but add according to taste), and some pepper.
Pour the very hot sauce over the mussels, sprinkle with lots of parsley, and serve immediately.
*At home, poke breathing holes into the bag of mussels and store in the refrigerator.