Mussels transport me back to childhood to family camping holidays in France – an annual summer event and a lengthy affair. Our trips stretched for weeks and weeks until my brother and I could hardly remember a morning without a breakfast of still-warm baguette dunked into a delicious bowl of Banania. We would walk for miles (I was a child – possibly one mile?) down to the mussel trees and poke out cockles with our chubby fingers from the sand when the tide was low and when it was high, we would brave the punishing Atlantic waves and duck and dive (never too far from Dad who we thought could save us – No. Matter. What) until our hands and feet and lips were turning a mottled whitish blue. And then we would emerge, grinning and shivering, in need of a dry towel and lots of biscuits. If we went out for supper in the evening, the only thing I can ever remember Dad ordering is moules frites. I thought they looked decidedly suspect and wasn’t to be persuaded otherwise until many years later.
By the end of summer, my brother and I were a deep burnished brown (from the sun rather than excessive hot-chocolate consumption I assume) and bordering on wild – cries of “Mum, they’re TOO TIGHT!” would inevitably ensue when trying on new school shoes, having grown accustomed to grubbing about barefoot. Needless to say, we were shoehorned back into civilised attire and more-or-less civilised ways, until summer rolled round again…
So when I think of mussels I think of striped Breton tops and little French bistros and Dad elbow-deep in shells. And yet the inspiration for this recipe is taken, rather oddly, from England. It was the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and as the celebrating hoards descended we, along with countless other Londoners, scurried off in search of our own jollity. We had gone to the New Forest to see the ponies but it ended up being the mussels that stole my heart. In a bustling, unassuming pub in Lyndhurst I was served the most exquisite moules marinière – plump, juicy and laced with Pernod. So delicious that I’m still thinking about them almost two years later.
Juicy mussels in a simple fragrant marinière sauce, fortified with fennel and Pernod. A wonderfully simple pleasure and, in my case, best enjoyed barefoot.
Just one thing: Your mussels must be FRESH FRESH FRESH – ask the fishmonger when they were plucked from the ocean and then use them the day you buy them if possible. If using the next day, put them in the fridge in a bowl and cover them with a damp cloth to keep them perky.
Moules in Pernod sauce
– 1-1.2kg fresh mussels
– 1 tablespoon olive oil
– 2 banana shallots, finely sliced into rings
– 1/2 fennel, finely sliced
– 1 clove garlic, finely sliced
– 175ml white wine
– 60ml Pernod
– bunch fresh parsley, finely chopped
Take the mussels out of the fridge and rinse in the sink for a good few minutes. Discard any that have damaged shells or remain open if you tap them sharply on the counter. Scrub off any barnacles or seaweed from the shells and de-beard them by gripping the beard with your fingers and yanking sharply towards the hinged end of the shell. Place the cleaned shells in a bowl of cold water for about twenty minutes to encourage them to filter out any sand.
Heat the oil in a large, wide-based pan on a medium heat. Add the shallots and fennel and sweat for about 10 minutes until soft.
Add the garlic, wine and Pernod, turn up the heat and cook off the alcohol for a couple of minutes.
Add the parsley and mussels to the pan and steam with the lid on for 4-6 minutes, or until they pop open. Tip: When you think they’re done, give the pan a shake to force any reluctant fellas to pop. Please don’t overcook them as they will be rubbery!