I first came across this unique way to preparing mussels on a family holiday to France. We were staying in the south-western region of Poitou-Charentes in the La Tremblade district on the Atlantic coast. The area has a large oyster farming harbour, along which a number of restaurants and cafes that serve excellent shellfish dishes (as you’d expect). One of the local specialities included Éclade de Moules that utilises the almost endless supply of pine needles from the nearby 6000 hectare pine forest.
Incidentally, this method for cooking mussels has also featured on Channel 4’s River Cottage with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.
The spectacular and fun cooking process imparts a wonderful smoky campfire flavour to the sweet molluscs. This recipe is quite a project, but well worth the results.
Skill Level: Easy – Moderate
Equipment required: Flat wooden block (An old chopping board is ideal), 4 Large wood nails, Hammer, Blowtorch – optional, Cardboard sheet – optional, Ordnance Survey Map / Bing Maps
Prep time: 30 Minutes (plus time foraging for pine needles)
Cooking time: 5-10 Minutes
Mussels – 750 grams (to serve 2)
Pine Needles – Several handfuls
Step 1: You will need a good many handfuls of dried pine needles to burn atop the mussels for this recipe. To find these, search for a nearby coniferous forest (using an Ordnance Survey map, or alternatively Bing maps provides an Ordnance Survey format http://www.bing.com/mapspreview ).
You’re going to need needles from the forest floor that have turned brown, and have become dried. If they are damp you can still collect them, but let them dry at home over a few days.
Step 2: Next, hammer 4 nails into the centre of your wooden board in a square pattern, approximately a centimetre apart.
Step 3: Having prepared the mussels (de-bearded and having checked that all are closed), begin arranging the mussels on your board. Starting in the centre using the nails as props, position each mussel so that their shell hinge is facing upwards. This is so that as they cook and open, their shells do not fill with ash. This requires a little patience and a steady hand, as occasionally they may fall domino fashion!
Step 4: Once arranged, transfer your board outdoors and place on a flat fire-proof surface. A barbecue is ideal.
Step 5: On top of the mussels, pile your dried pine needles making sure that the entire board is covered to a depth of at least 20 centimetres.
Step 6: When you are ready to eat, set light to the pine needles. This is easily done with the use of a blowtorch, or alternative use a lit piece of paper or card. Under the intense heat, the mussels will steam in their own liquid, and as they open will take on the special pine-smoke flavour.
Step 7: Leave the needles to burn – fanning if necessary – until the flames have extinguished themselves and the mussels are left with a light covering of ash (this will only take 5 or so minutes). Check to see if they have opened and are piping hot. If not, re-apply more needles and repeat the burning process.
Step 8: Fan off as much of the ash as possible with a cardboard sheet, and serve to the table on the board they were cooked upon.
As an ideal accompaniment, include a simple garlic mayonnaise to dip the mussel meat into, and enjoy with a cold continental beer, or a cool glass of Picpoul de Pinet or a Vin d’Anjou.
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