Surely moules marinières is the quintessential French holiday dish. The combination of spanking fresh seafood, wine and shallots accompanied by large hunks of crusty baguette is an intoxicating one, especially after what passes for breakfast on the ferry. But mussels are so blessedly cheap in Britain that there's no need to shell out (ha!) on a channel crossing to enjoy them in what The Prawn Cocktail Years calls "the greatest and the simplest of all mussel dishes". To be honest, there aren't many others in the running round my way, not even that other French favourite, mouclade, but who cares when you've got moules marinières and maybe a side order of frites?
The Marine Conservation Society reckons that mussel stocks are "generally considered to be underexploited". In fact, these bivalves are so obligingly abundant that they're sometimes dismissed as the poor man's shellfish – so whether you're haunted by your bank manager or Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, you can tuck in with a clean conscience. The especially conscientious wild mussel buyer (as Guardian readers, that means you) should look for hand-gathered rather than mechanically harvested examples, however: all that dredging wreaks havoc with the ocean floor.
Although I'd always associated moules marinières with wine, Elizabeth David suggests that in its simplest form it can be just mussels cooked in either dry cider or white wine, and Lucas Hollweg of the Sunday Times also has a lovely looking recipe using cider and leeks. It makes sense: Normandy, where they take their mussels seriously, is carpeted with orchards and you're more likely to be offered a glass of cider or beer with your mussels than anything grapey from further south.
Although the sweet and sour flavour works well with the sweetness of the shellfish, apple-based sauces inevitably make me think of roast pork, which in turn transports me to an autumnal Sunday lunch rather than a French seaside resort in high season. A refreshingly acidic wine, like the muscadet suggested by Simon Hopkinson and Lindsey Bareham, feels much more summery. (Strictly speaking, like many shellfish, mussels are at their best in the colder months, but they're available all year round.) Indeed, Ollie Smith describes moules marinières and muscadet as "as sublime a match as Jayne Torville and Christopher Dean in the midst of Boléro" – I'll have to take his word for that.
Butter and its creamy ilk
Moules marinières are pretty damn chouette, but if I see moules à la crème on a menu, I'm sold – although quite honestly, the poor creatures are simply pawns: it's the prospect of a big pot of sea-salty, wine-flavoured cream that's the real draw. In French Provincial Cooking Elizabeth David includes double cream in her recipe for "a grander version of moules marinières", and Raymond Blanc suggests using whipping cream in his Foolproof French Cookery, so it's clearly not a culinary crime in the same league as a creamy carbonara. However, I'm prepared to be open-minded if it means eating more moules – and lo, the Prawn Cocktail Years version knocks my socks off. Without the cream, the flavour of the mussels and the wine can really shine: Rick Stein's recipe seems rich but dull in comparison. I must be getting sophisticated in my old age.
That's not to say that there's no room for a little luxury in a dish which should have a festive, holiday feel to it. In his book fish Tom Aikens adds a generous dollop of butter to the pot before serving, which adds depth without spoiling the flavour. Larousse Gastronomique suggests removing the mussels from the pan once done and then whisking butter into the cooking liquor to thicken it – but this seems an unnecessary faff, especially as the stars of the show cool so quickly.
Much as I love mussels, Elizabeth David's simple cider-only take on moules marinières is rather disappointing – they can take on some bigger flavours (to be fair, she does warn the reader that this "primitive version ... is only really successful with the small and tender mussels which are none too easy to find in towns"). Something else is clearly needed and I prefer the sweet, almost winey flavour of shallots to the Prawn Cocktail Years onions, although I don't think this particular dish really needs the garlic deployed by Rick Stein and Tom Aikens: it seems too Mediterranean. The simple trinity of seafood, shallots and wine should be quite enough.
That said, herbs are a nice touch: a little thyme and a bay leaf, as used by Tom Aikens, add a subtle depth of flavour, while the chopped parsley which seems to be the mandatory garnish is pleasantly peppery, as well as providing a touch of colour.
Apart from Elizabeth David's laughably simple basic version (throw mussels and cider in pan, cover until the mussels open, strain the stock if necessary, serve) most recipes follow the same pattern, softening the shallots or onions, along with any herbs, in butter, then adding the mussels and liquid and cooking as above. Tom Aikens, however, does things a little differently, starting with a wine and shallot and herb reduction, to which he adds more wine and the mussels before finishing with butter. This gives the broth a wonderfully intense flavour – all right, it adds 10 minutes on to the cooking time, but you still get dinner on the table in less than 15 minutes, which is just time to tear up the bread or send someone out to get a big pile of chips for dipping.
Perfect moules marinières
You can serve a simple green salad alongside if you want – but please, don't feel obliged.
1kg mussels2 shallots, finely chopped2 sprigs of thyme, leaves picked1 bay leaf150ml dry white wine, eg muscadet50g butter, cubedA small bunch of flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
1. Rinse the mussels in cold running water, and then give them a good scrub and scrape to remove any barnacles or dirt. Discard any with broken shells, and give any open ones a sharp tap: if they don't close, then throw them away too, because they're dead. Pull out the beards – the fibrous little appendages which the mussels use to attach themselves to ropes or rocks, by pulling them sharply towards the hinge end of the mussel, then leave them to sit in cold water for a couple of hours until ready to use.2. Put the chopped shallots, thyme leaves, bay leaf and wine into a large pan, and bring to a simmer. Turn the heat down, and cook gently for 10 minutes, then turn up the heat to medium-high.3. Drain the mussels and tip into the pan. Cover and cook until most of them have opened: about 3 minutes.4. Add the butter and put the lid back on for 30 seconds to allow it to melt. Add the parsley and shake the pan well to distribute, then season gently and serve immediately, discarding any mussels which remain closed.
Moules marinières: is there a higher end to which the humble mussel might aspire? What other versions of this dish do you enjoy, and are there any other culinary classics that qualify as bona fide fast food?
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