Monday, February 05, 2007

Mussels and the Mesolithic

Down on the south coast of England early man has left signs of his presence. In the Middle Stone Age our hunter gatherer ancestors collected shellfish and cooked them by placing small round pebbles from the fire in water held in skin bags. We have evidence of the little stones, sometimes known as pot-boilers, and heaps of shells piled in middens. Archaeologists even found a ring that they think was used to keep the mouth of the skin bag open. The diet would have been good, if a bit monotonous, but I always think that the amount of energy available from the food must have been just about balanced out by the energy expended to collect it.

With global warming our native shellfish are already packing their bags on the south coast and heading north, for cooler waters. And so, balancing out energy expenditure and energy saving, I motor to the fishmonger and purchase a net of mussels.

Glistening with all the dark colours of the deep, navy to ochre, and linked by the seaweedy looking byssus which held them to a Scottish rope, mussels will be fine for a couple of days in the bottom of the fridge. When you come to prepare them, wash them under running water, pull off the tough byssus with a sharp knife, and discard any that stubbornly refuse to close. The great thing about rope grown mussels is that you avoid the sand which is otherwise a given and was probably a real problem for our ancestors.

A little kick of chilli doesn’t go amiss with shellfish, so my ingredients, for two people, are:

A net of mussels
2 tsp black peppercorns
2 cloves garlic
2 shallots
1 medium sized, hot red chilli
3 tbsp olive oil
1 lemon
Big splash of white wine or vermouth
Small bunch parsley

Prepare mussels as above. Crush the peppercorns roughly. Chop garlic and shallots. Remove seeds from chilli and slice finely. Soften all together in the olive oil. Add lemon juice and wine/vermouth to pan and allow to bubble for a moment. Chuck in all the mussels and put lid on pan. Give it a good shake to distribute the mussels, and another a minute later. The shellfish will steam open in a couple of minutes. Chop parsley and toss on top. Serve with lemon and warm bread.

And if you have any left over, they will be great the next day as a sort of tapa. Refrigerate overnight and serve at room temperature, with lots of bread to mop up the spicy juices.

1 comment:

Welshcakes Limoncello said...

Unfortunately I'm allergic to both fish and shellfish but you have made this post so interesting. - Fascinating history and great photos.

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