Showing off your mussels

If you ever find yourself eating out in New Zealand you will probably not be disappointed as fresh, high-quality ingredients are easy to come by and a good starting point for any recipe. But you may be a bit baffled by some of the terminology. Take peppers, for instance (or sweet peppers as we used to call them when I was little – I think in the US they are known as bell peppers – or sometimes pimentos to avoid any confusion with peppercorns). In New Zealand they are capsicums, which is biologically correct but less precise as to a botanist chillis are also capsicums, and indeed the substance responsible for their hotness is capsaicin.

Capsaicin in high concentrations is a neurotoxin, and if you eat enough chillis your mouth will go completely numb. The Chinese even have a word for this, which is (it also means dope or drugs), not to be confused with , which is horse, (mother), (to scold) or just plain ma, which at the end of a sentence turns it into a question (the accents indicate what pitch the word should be spoken at). If you have ever tried Szechuan cuisine is quite a useful word to know.

This is what was left after my wife and I carefully picked out and ate the pieces of beef hidden among the chillies at a restaurant in Chengdu

It must be jelly (’cause jam don’t shake like that)

Capsaicin is also useful if you ever want to make pineapple jelly. Pineapple contains bromelain, a proteolytic enzyme, which is to say that it dissolves protein, much as biological washing powder does. We used to give pineapple chunks to our patients undergoing radiotherapy to the mouth to clean off the dead tissue. Apparently these days if you have a body you need to dispose of, biological detergent is an alternative to quicklime, and easier to find in Sainsbury’s.

The reason jelly sets is that it contains gelatin (a protein derived from animals and the basis of old-fashioned glue made from boiling bones; it also used to be used to make the emulsion of photographic film, which was a problem for vegans until digital photography came along). Gelatin readily dissolves in warm water and then sets as it cools. Strictly speaking this isn’t a solution but a gel, with the gelatin molecules forming long strands and the water trapped between them. The problem comes when you add pineapple juice, as the bromelain breaks down the gelatin strands and your jelly won’t set. However, if you add a small quantity of chilli, the capsaicin denatures the bromelain (i.e. changes the shape of the enzyme molecule so that it doesn’t work), the gelatin strands remain intact and your jelly will set.

(For the benefit of readers from the US, jelly is what you know as jell-o. What you call jelly is really jam, which is also a gel, but held together by pectin, a polysaccharide found in fruit and having a different texture. If you visit the UK you may also encounter a traffic jam, which is like a gridlock but less regular. In France this is a circulation confiture. Jelly roll is quite different.)

Another Chinese favourite. I was glad to see that the dog was allowed a few bones.

Another thing that threw me in New Zealand once occurred when I ordered lamb’s fries. Unwisely ignoring the apostrophe on the menu board (as you do) I expected fried lamb but what came were kidneys. My host said “but everybody knows that lamb’s fries are kidneys…”. “Only everybody in New Zealand” was my reply. In all fairness they were very good.

New Zealand has some unique dishes. A popular one is lolly cake. Lollies to the Kiwi are what we call sweets (or candy in the US). Not to be confused with what we call lollies (popsicles on the other side of the Pond). Lolly cake is made from ground-up biscuits made up with some kind of syrup into a thick paste, and then mixed with soft, pastel-coloured sweets. After letting it cool in the fridge for a bit it is served in slices. All of the ingredients are proprietary and impossible to obtain anywhere else, but if you know any English ex-pats living over there you can come to some arrangement involving an exchange with Marmite and PG Tips.

The other thing to be wary of are chefs’ creations. This means that they can’t follow a recipe. Or fusion food, which is what happens when the chef tries to combine the cuisines of two different cultures, understanding neither.

Fission food

Actually one of the most disappointing meals I ever had was in Australia. We had just flown straight from London to Sydney, with a two-hour stop-off in Hong Kong to collect our luggage and then check it back again onto the same plane, and then taken a four-hour internal flight to Perth. By the time we arrived at our hotel (the Crowne Plaza) I had that insatiable hunger that only comes with jet-lag. We were the only diners in the hotel restaurant, where the chef was some kind of local celebrity famed for his imaginative cooking. I looked at the menu and ordered bouillabaise followed by cassoulet. The first course to come was not a rich seafood soup but a salad. I complained to the waiter that he had got my order wrong. Not so, he told me, explaining that the reason the chef was so famous was because he was skilled at deconstructing well-known traditional dishes and making something else from the wreckage. Under the lettuce leaves there was a nod to French bouillabaise in the form of four cold mussels sitting on a gooey paste that I suppose was once rouille. I wouldn’t have minded so much if it had at least been tasty.

Then the cassoulet came, that rich stew of beans, sausage and whatever poultry was available (quails, pheasant, partridge, duck…). Though a better description might be another salad, but this time one that hadn’t been tossed. Occupying the four quadrants of the plate were a cold sausage, a cold chicken breast, a cold potato and a pile of cold beans.

Australia is known for its kangaroo (don’t bother) and for mixing steak and seafood (better than it sounds, and definitely better than the Russian equivalent, steak Boyar, which tastes of sardines). However, my experience is that the food in New Zealand is definitely safer.

“Welcome to Tuatapere, Sausage Capital of New Zealand”

The Kiwis are very proud of their local produce, and as you approach many towns, you will see looming in the distance a giant effigy of an apple, a sausage, a chicken or whatever that area is particularly known for. In Havelock it is mussels. I’m afraid whenever I go to Havelock I can’t help thinking of Havelock Ellis, whose writings on sex predated the better-known Kinsey reports.

This is the place to eat in Havelock.

However, if you do find yourself passing through Havelock you must stop there for lunch. There is ony one restaurant worth bothering about and they will serve you the famous New Zealand green-lipped mussels. Unlike our little mussels in the UK these are a wonderful emerald-green colour, and they are also enormous. So enormous, in fact, that you might find it a bit off-putting when you open the shell to find a mass of innards staring back at you. Instead of a small blob of glup you have to square up to the Todal itself.

I pulled a mussel once in Havelock. Isn’t she sweet?

Much less famous, but tastier and more straightforward to eat are our British mussels. They are cheap, quick and easy to cook, filling and delicious. Here’s how to do it:

A l’eau! C’est l’heure

To the water! The hour is upon us.

Motto of the French Navy

The most well-known recipe is moules mariniere, a mariniere, of course, being one of those stripy shirts that French sailors wear. This is steamed mussels in cream and white wine. A kilogram of mussels, together with a fresh, crusty baguette, is a filling meal for two, or a substantial starter for four. The wine provides a bit of bite, so it has to have enough acidity. I find a New Zealand chardonnay works well. French chardonnays (if they are any good) are often called Burgundy, and they are expensive. Actually Burgundy is always expensive, even when it is undrinkable, particularly red, which is a conqequence of a combination of the fussiness of the pinot noir grape and Napoleonic land inheritance laws. Australian chardonnay tends to have too much fruit and oak without the acidity to balance it. Chablis would work too, however, provided it is French and not American (where the word is pronounced Cha-BLEEE and refers to any white wine not worth specifiying further). Some people recommend cider, which I haven’t tried. Officially you should use shallots (or shasome as there are only two in this recipe) but I don’t think many would mind if you substituted an onion.

Napoleon apparently introduced a system of distributing property between offspring rather than the eldest son automatically inheriting. In Bourgogne this has resulted in vineyards being further and further subdivided until in some cases each landowner has only a small strip of grapes. Not everyone has the same interest in making great wine, so appellation is no guarantee of quality, even in the case of some quite famous crus. They are all expensive, so price is no guide here, unless you are up for spending £500 plus for a bottle (it is usually safe at this price point). The trick is to look at the small print at the bottom of the label at the back to see who made it. Or better still, find a really good wine merchant who will have tasted all the lesser-known (and therefore cheaper) wines before deciding what to stock. Red Burgundy is made from the pinot noir grape (which, rather confusingly, can also go into Champagne), and of all grape varieties this is the easiest to cock up. Drink a French pinot only if you know what you are doing and are prepared to pay for it. Otherwise your best bet is New Zealand, where they have somehow managed to solve most of the problems and have two styles – lightweight, which is good for lunch, and heavy, which isn’t cheap but can be excellent.


  • 1 Kg mussels
  • A big knob of butter
  • 2 shallots (or a medium onion)
  • A couple of bay leaves
  • A few sprigs of thyme
  • A medium bunch of fresh parsley
  • 175ml dry white wine (thats 1/4 bottle)
  • 100ml double cream


Start by cleaning the mussels. Put them in a sink full of cold water and pick them over. Pull off the beards (the dangly fibrous bits, so-called despite mussels not having chins), and gently scrub the shell with a washing-up brush to remove any gunge (don’t scrub hard as this loosens the outer layer of the shell which can then discolour the sauce to an unappetising grey). At this point you are supposed to remove any barnacles, I suppose because they are likely to be dead, maybe slightly decomposed and will taint the meal. Unfortunately they tend to be stuck fast, to the point where I have considered getting out the angle-grinder, or at least a cold chisel. However, you can use a sturdy penknife with a short blade to prize off the ones that aren’t obviously empty (don’t use a cooking knife or you will destroy it, sparking a Domestic Incident). You also need to make sure that none of the mussels are dead as you can only be sure that the live ones are fresh. Most mussels will close their shells tightly when they sense the fresh water in your sink, and if not you can encourage them with a little squeeze. The ones that are clearly unresponsive (i.e. remaining open) should be consigned to the bin. Drain the others in a colander.

Next chop the shallots finely. Also (separately) chop the parsley and the thyme. Thyme is always a bit awkward, as the leaves are attached the wrong way round for you to strip them easily. If your thyme happens to be a bit tough and woody it might be easier just to tie it in a bunch with some thread and fish it out later.

Now find a big enough saucepan such that the mussels will fill it about half-way. Put it onto a gentle heat and melt the butter. Add the shallots and bay leaves and let them fry gently until they are transparent. You can add some black pepper at this point but you probably won’t need salt. Now turn up the heat, add the mussles, wine and thyme, and put the lid on the pan. Let it steam for 3 – 4 minutes, giving it a good shake every now and then. By now the mussels should have opened; if not give it a little longer. My wife says that you should discard the ones that haven’t opened, which is probably good advice as you can’t get into them. Take the pan off the heat and stir in the cream and parsley.

Spoon the mussels into large bowls, together with a good dollop of the liquid. No cutlery is required to eat them as you can use the shells as spoons, and soak up the juice with the bread. You can’t avoid getting it all over you, but it is worth it.

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