Mussels are strange things, aren’t they?
At an extremely basic level, I think most of us instinctively divide food into four main groups: meat, fish, vegetables and carbohydrates/starches. We might then break those down into subcategories but, by and large, those are the great great grandparents in the family tree of food. By that logic, shellfish are a subcategory of ‘fish’, and bivalves, like mussels, cockles and oysters, are a subcategory of ‘shellfish’. This, however, for my part, is where it all begins to break down; to me, a man with all the scientific initiative of a garden chair, a mussel bears no more outward resemblance to a salmon or a prawn than it does to a cow or a chicken (I can see this all heading in the direction of a pub-bore conversation about the fact that actually, not many people know it, but a banana is really a nut*) but seems more a kind of alien species that evolved on another planet and simply landed here on earth on an asteroid and liked it, so stuck around. Their strangeness extends to how and where they congregate, too: as I understand it, if you want to be a mussel farmer, you need do nothing more than throw a rope in the sea and wait. Strange, strange things.
This recipe utilises jarred mussels which takes an already weird thing, and makes it weirder still by preserving it. Jarred mussels stir a very early memory for me; I remember little embossed glass jars with weird lids (am I going quite mad, or did you have to open them with a coin or a bottle opener or something?) which contained tiny mussels or cockles, packed tight in their own pickling liquor, slightly gritty to bite into, and mouth-wateringly vinegary. To some people, absolutely gross, I have no doubt, but my mouth is filling with saliva as I type this, so they clearly made a strong impression on me.
Later in life, when Pernilla and I first moved in together in a tiny flat beside Hackney’s London Fields, I encountered them again, this time served by The Prince George pub as an absolutely inspired bar snack alongside bottles of tabasco sauce and cocktail sticks for picking (to this day I’m not sure, even having sampled some very agreeable pork scratchings and scotch eggs, that I’ve ever come across quite such a filthily satisfying beer snack. I don’t know if The George still do them, in this age of artisan chorizo pork pies and chilli crackers, but they certainly should.)
This recipe calls simply for “mussels from a bottle” with no further indication of what type. In the recipe blurb, “…the horrid liquid in which they are bottled” is alluded to, which may imply that the pickled variety are required. I don’t know. It also mixes them in cream and curry powder, which I think puts it firmly in the category that some would describe, perhaps unkindly, as ‘guilty pleasures’.
Here in Sweden, fish in a tin is at least as big a deal as anywhere else. On the supermarket shelf, I found mussels that were brined, smoked, and stored in various infused and flavoured liquids. I opted for the former in this case.
First, I whisked half a teaspoon of curry powder into 150ml of cream and bubbled it on the stove til it had reduced by half, then tipped in a sizeable handful of the mussels, having rinsed them under the tap (the liquor they were stored in wasn’t really ‘horrid’ at all, but I did as the recipe said, just because), warmed them through, added a quick squeeze of lemon and then dumped them on some toast; a poppyseed bloomer I’d made earlier in the week that had become too stale to eat untoasted but was perfect for this.
I can’t think of how to describe the appearance of what lay on the plate better than ‘luminous’, but it looked appealing in its own way. Definitely a knife-and-fork affair, I mashed the mussels down onto the toast as I sliced, mopping up the creamy sauce as I went and, you know, it was as satisfying an early lunch as I could possibly have hoped for. Not elegant, not sophisticated, but nice to eat. If it wasn’t 11am, I might have cracked open a cold beer to have it with.
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*It’s not, it’s apparently a herb, but it’s clearly a bloody fruit, okay?