Fresh seafood arrives daily at my local supermarket, though come Friday, the quantity and selection is far greater. France holds to the tradition of fish on Fridays, and most cafés’ plat du jour menus and all school lunch menus will feature seafood.
The supermarket seafood section, takes up a large space, about the same space as the butchery serve-over counter. It will feature fresh fish of the season, whole and filleted, crabs, oysters, clams and mussels all in their shells, lobsters alive in a tank ready for the customer to select, eels, smoked seafood, squid and processed options such as seafood pâtés, ready to heat-and-eat lobster bisques and fish chowders. It is a veritable fishy wonderland, all displayed on crushed ice with no glass window preventing you from picking out your own choice. On busy days, a cordon is arranged to ensure that patrons queue patiently in single file to guarantee personal attention in order. (Imagine this scene in the average kiwi supermarket – there would be rebellion in the queue!)
Price wise, fish is less expensive here; mussels are, as the expression goes, as cheap as chips if not cheaper! A kilogram of ebony-shelled Atlantic Ocean bouchot blue mussels will cost around 4 Euros per kilogram. When you buy them, the assistant will use a shovel-sized scoop, collecting 500 grams in one lift, all the while enquiring how Madame will cook them. Will it be moules Marinière (white wine, herbs, butter), moules à la Provençale (wine, tomatoes, garlic, herbs) or moules Dijonnaise (wine, mustard, cream)? The concept of cooking mussels in a paella or risotto is thought foreign; these are the dishes of Spain or Italy and I’m told – not asked – ”pourquoi, you are in France“? At this juncture, I decide not to suggest mussels in a Thai marinade, and I’m again reminded that in rural France, culinary traditions die hard and I also get the theory of not changing a good thing.
Bouchot blue mussels are the favourite mussel variety in France, even having AOP status. Bouchot means shellfish bed, where the mussels grow on natural fibre ropes wrapped around heavy wooden stakes driven into the seabed off the Normandy coastline. Harvested by hand, they require little cleaning as they are barnacle free, and any beards are removed before despatching. The consumer can just buy and cook. I can choose between two sizes and I prefer the smaller, 40mm in length, as these have a fine sweet texture with a deep golden- orange colour.
France consumes more than they produce, importing mussels from Spain to cope with the demand, and they eat more than their European counterparts, about 3 kilograms of mussel meat per year.
The quintessential dish of summer is the famed moules et frites – mussels cooked in wine in a traditional mussel pot, served accompanied with frites and mayonnaise on the side. I went against tradition - and the seafood counter assistant’s specific instruction – and cooked them in a mildly spiced Basque-inspired paella. Enjoy.