Mussel power: There’s no harm in it (even for vegans)
Their growth and harvesting cause the least cruelty to other sentient beings of any food we eat, including grains and vegetables
Veganism is a curious, er, animal. Here is a philosophy about eating that proclaims that a bowl of vegetables and grains – for which any number of mice, birds, insects and the like have died or been harmed – is a more ethical meal choice than a serving of anything at all from the animal kingdom.
Sensible vegans (quasi-vegans?) see the madness in this fundamentalism, and when they need animal-based nutrients, they choose creatures that don’t possess any semblance of a brain. The obvious choice here is bivalves, so mussels, oysters, clams and the like are all on the menu. In this group, farmed mussels are probably tops, both on the cruelty and environmental front.
Their future looks bright as a star food. Their growth and harvesting require, arguably, the least harm to any other sentient being of any food we eat, including grains and vegetables. While most aquaculture is damaging to the marine world, almost all mussel farming is a happy story – possibly the greenest protein source on the planet.
Mussels don’t need to be fed as farmed fish do (as filter feeders they feed themselves and help to clean the sea), and leagues of ocean don’t need to be destroyed in the way that animal and crop production destroys swathes of habitat.
How lucky that our locally farmed mussels – large, plump, gleaming and silky – have the bonus of being something to celebrate purely for reasons of greed. But only when prepared correctly. If you’ve eaten mussels at a restaurant and found them underwhelming – mealy or rubbery, tasteless or bitter – chances are good that they started out frozen, were overcooked, or (usually) both.
The supple plushness of a fresh mussel is a different thing entirely. If you’re up to the task of scrubbing and debearding and cooking enough for 10 mussel-lovers, order a box of the Saldanha Bay critters from the ever-great La Marina. As for recipe ideas, you could do worse than googling Julia Child’s mussels in white wine sauce.
And ignore the myth that those that haven’t opened are no good for consumption. In a farmed mussel, there’s virtually no chance you’ve hit a bad egg: the still-closed bivalves are often the best and fattest specimens. Mussels already open before cooking are the ones to avoid. Any that haven’t opened a minute or so after most have should be opened with a sharp small blade.
I’ve eaten and served more of these stubborn specimens than I can recall and have not yet killed myself or anyone else (that I know of).
• Andrea Burgener is owner of and chef at The Leopard, 44 Stanley Avenue, Joburg.