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