MUS­SELS GA­LORE

Learn about the cul­ti­va­tion of the tasty mol­lusc along the French At­lantic coast.

France - - Contents -

Ahot, dry wind whis­tles over the cob­bled streets of La Rochelle, cap­i­tal of the Char­ente-mar­itime dé­parte­ment in western France, when I ar­rive on the first day of my mus­sel-hunt­ing trip. I plan to fol­low the 45-kilome­tre Char­ron Mus­sel Route, which stretches north­wards from nearby Mar­silly and around Aigu­il­lon Bay.

La Rochelle was once France’s most fa­mous sea­port and the pi­o­neers who founded Mon­tréal set sail from here in the 1600s. Framed by three me­dieval tow­ers that once de­fended the har­bour, the old port is lined with restau­rants and bars. I get a ta­ble at La Moule Rieuse, one of the city’s best shell­fish restau­rants, and or­der the re­gion’s sig­na­ture dish, mouclade, steamed mus­sels served in a suc­cu­lent cream and curry sauce.

Next stop is the ham­let of Aytré, 15 min­utes in­land from La Rochelle, which is home to the Moule-shop. The food stand serves fresh mus­sel dishes rang­ing from clas­sic moules marinière (mar­i­nated in herbs and white wine) to more in­no­va­tive dishes such as the sump­tu­ous moules Ro­que­fort, where the mus­sels are soaked in a rich sauce made with the pun­gent sheep’s cheese and gar­lic. Af­ter lunch on a park bench in the pretty mar­ket square, I head for Mar­silly, next stop on the Mus­sel Route.

Like oys­ters from Marennes, brandy from Cognac and cham­pagne from you-know-where, mus­sels cul­ti­vated along this stretch of the At­lantic coast are con­sid­ered to be the best in France and only these shell­fish can claim the pres­ti­gious Char­ron ap­pel­la­tion con­trôlée sta­tus.

I ar­rive at Mar­silly just as the sun is set­ting over a line of strange an­gu­lar struc­tures fronting the peb­ble beach. Next morning, I dis­cover that these jet­ties equipped with huge square nets at one end are car­relets, the fish­ing cab­ins that have been used in this re­gion for cen­turies. “They are handed down from gen­er­a­tion to gen­er­a­tion,” ex­plains Pierre, my guide in Mar­silly’s graf­fiti mu­seum the fol­low­ing day. “The fish­er­man sits in the cabin at the end of the jetty and slowly winds a han­dle that lets down the big square net into the sea. He leaves it for a while and when he brings the net up again he hopes there will be fish in­side.”

Af­ter brows­ing through the fas­ci­nat­ing – and some­times mov­ing – col­lec­tion of his­tor­i­cal graf­fiti on dis­play, I head to the seafront to watch seag­ulls squawk­ing over a muddy line of bou­chot stakes cov­ered with tiny, black mus­sels. As the tide rises and the mus­sel cul­ti­va­tors chug out in their flat-bot­tomed boats, known as plats, I climb the clock tower for a bet­ter view over the mus­sel beds to­wards Aigu­il­lon Bay, where I plan to fin­ish my trip.

I leave Mar­silly along Rue Pa­trice Walton, named af­ter the Ir­ish sailor who re­put­edly dis­cov­ered the method of col­lect­ing mus­sels on stakes that is still used to­day. The story goes that Walton, who was ship­wrecked off Es­nan­des some time in the 12th cen­tury, no­ticed mus­sels grow­ing on stakes near the wa­ter­line. Chop­ping down an oak tree he whit­tled a few stakes of his own, stuck them in the mud and re­turned a month later to find mus­sel spats cling­ing to them. A year later, he tasted his first crop of full-flavoured mol­luscs, which were free of the gritty sed­i­ment which mars the savour of moules har­vested from the seabed, and thus evolved the bou­chot sys­tem.

Per­haps in Walton’s mem­ory, Es­nan­des now houses the Mai­son de la Mytili­cul­ture, the re­gion’s own mus­sel mu­seum. The ex­ten­sive col­lec­tion of videos and ex­hibits is an ideal prepa­ra­tion for my fi­nal trip out to see the mus­sel beds in the bay.

Legs strad­dled ei­ther side of the tiller, mus­sel farmer Hu­bert Forestier pi­lots me out across this horse­shoe-shaped bay which yields some of France’s best shell­fish. “1.8 kilo­grams of mus­sels are

CLOCK­WISE FROM FAC­ING PAGE: Serv­ing up mouclade, mus­sels cooked in a creamy curry sauce; A mus­sel cul­ti­va­tor on his flat-bot­tomed boat known as a plat; The mol­luscs cooked eclade, on a wa­ter­soaked plank

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