The fact I am not especially a linguist and tend to spend much of my time traveling solo, has led to some interesting interactions with local residents. While I generally gain a visual understanding of the language of the region and have acquired somewhat of an ear for certain words, to say I am versed in most languages other than my own is an extremely long stretch.
I seem to get by most of the time, though, but there are those moments when no amount of hand gestures or verbal attempts provide satisfactory results. Such was the case in the town of Rochefort, France. Located on the Atlantic Coast in the Charente-Maritime department of the Poitou-Charentes region, Rochefort was developed originally around a naval harbor. All I really needed to know was it was a harbor town. It meant I was fairly certain I would find fabulous seafood and fish.
I had rented a small apartment for the week. I wanted quiet for writing research papers and the ability to cook my own meals when I chose. I did manage to complete my papers that week, but as for the meals, well, if I recall correctly, there was only one enjoyed in the small apartment kitchen.
On the afternoon of my arrival, I walked through the town seeking a small café or bistro to enjoy a simple lunch and glass of wine. My selection was rather easy. Since I was famished, as I passed the outside table of a café and noticed plates of incredibly large mussels I stopped. Soon I was seated at an outside, umbrella covered table and the chaos ensued.
Before I entered, I had noticed a table receive a plate of what appeared to be some type of breaded mussels. While it appeared to be the only table with mussels served in this manner, I made an assumption they were on the menu somewhere. The problem was, at that time, I had a limited understanding of the written French language other than a few cooking terms and an even smaller comprehension of the spoken language.
When the waiter returned with my wine, always an easy order in any language, I requested the breaded mussels. That was my first mistake. My request drew a blank stare. Apparently, this was not how it was requested. I quickly attempted to find a descriptive listing for the mussels on the menu. My second mistake was to believe I could interpret enough French to find the word for “breading”. My waiter attempted to describe each dish as I pointed to them but there simply was nothing on the menu matching the plate of mussels I had seen.
By now, what little brainpower I still retained after a long journey implored me to simply point and order anything mussels. It was then I saw movement from my side and a diminutive older woman touched the waiter’s elbow. Quietly, she spoke to the waiter in French to which he responded with a nod to her, a smile to me and was off to the kitchen with the order.
The woman turned to me and asked, “May I sit down?” in perfect English. Obviously, I invited her to join me. It seemed it was her table of diners who had enjoyed the breaded mussels. She told me Moules À la Provencale were not on the menu. The chef prepared them especially for her on afternoons she dined with friends. Assuming she must be well known by the chef and staff, I inquired if she lived in the town.
Kate proceeded to tell a small bit of her story. She was indeed a resident of Rochefort and had been for almost 55 years. American by birth, she volunteered with the American Red Cross in London during the Second World War; stayed until the final treaty was signed. After the war, she wanted to travel through Europe before returning to the States and, at some point, her travels led her to France and then Rochefort.
Before Kate could continue, her story was interrupted by the arrival of my mussels and the chef. I was expecting a bit of an apology but was completely taken aback when he smiled down at Kate, gave her a small kiss on her forehead and said, “Cat, mon amour.” Even I knew this translated to “my love”. Kate took his hand and introduced me to her husband, Robert.
Now here was a story. I was delighted with the days spent with Kate and Robert over the next week. There were bike rides to the islands within the Charente Estuary, walks through the gardens of Jardin des Retours and days spent in the kitchen with Robert. Through it all, the story of Kate and Robert emerged as a series tales woven through our time together.
My first lesson in Robert’s kitchen was the preparation of the breaded mussels, Moules À la Provencale.
This recipe easily serves 4 as a stand alone appetizer. When served along side a second appetizer, it easily serves 6.
This is a great recipe for guests who require a gluten free diet. The GF panko crumbs are actually used because of the intense crunchiness they impart, they lend themselves to a fantastic GF appetizer.
While not the first choice, an interesting aspect to this recipe is the ability to use frozen mussels with fabulous results; not something recommended normally. If fresh mussels are not available, using raw mussels works extremely well. Simply be sure they have not been frozen in a marinade or sauce. Run them under cold water to loosen them and melt any accumulated ice. Irish mussels seem to hold their flavor well when frozen.
Avoid the temptation to use an inexpensive, lower quality wine to cook the mussels. The quality determines the success of the final flavor when used as a dipping sauce. Besides, what is not used for cooking may be served with the mussels or simply sipped while cooking.
The Parmigiano-Reggiano is optional. The original recipe did not contain cheese. However, it does add a complexity and depth to the topping. Be sure to use a quality cheese. It matters.
This recipe may be assembled to the point of placing the crumb topping on the mussels then covered and refrigerated until ready to serve. At that point, it is only 4-5 minutes to serving time.
2 pounds mussels, scrubbed, discard those with cracked shells or that are open
2 c dry white wine such as Jermann Pinot Grigio 2014
¼ c chopped shallots
6 sprigs fresh parsley
6 sprigs fresh thyme
1 bay leaf
3 T butter, unsalted
4 T butter, unsalted
1 ½ T shallots, minced
¼ t garlic, minced
2 T fresh parsley, finely chopped
1 T fresh thyme, finely chopped
¼ c panko bread crumbs such as Kinnikinnich Foods GF Panko Style Bread Crumbs
¼ c Parmigiano-Reggiano, optional
½ t fresh thyme
Place wine and shallots in a large pot and bring to a boil over medium high heat. Boil for two minutes to slightly reduce. Add mussels. Lay parsley, thyme and bay leaf on top. Cover and boil quickly for about 4 minutes, shaking the pot several times to evenly cook the mussels.
After 4 minutes, check to see if the mussels have opened. If not, cook an additional 1 minutes. Place a mesh strainer over a bowl and drain the mussels reserving the cooking liquid.
Let the mussels cool until easy to handle. Discard any mussels that have not opened. With remaining, remove one side of the shell from each mussel. Using a fork, pull the mussel loose from the shell and place back into the shell. Set aside.
In a small bowl, combine the butter, shallots, garlic, parsley, and thyme. Using a spatula, mix until thoroughly combined. Add the bread crumbs and Parmigiano Reggiano. Combine to distribute completely.
Place the mussels on the half shell in an oven proof casserole. Place 1 teaspoon bread crumb mix on each mussel. If there is remaining mix, evenly divide between mussels. At this point, the mussels may be covered and refrigerated for several hours until ready to serve.
Preheat oven to broil. Place the mussels 4-5 inches from the broiler heat. Heat for 2-3 minutes until tops are browned. If they have been refrigerated, heat 3-4 minutes to thoroughly warm.
Warm 1 cup of the reserved cooking liquid in a small pan. Add the 3 tablespoons of butter and stir to melt. Evenly divide between four small bowls. Top with fresh thyme. Place bowls in the middle of four small appetizer plates.
Evenly divide the mussels between the four appetizer plates. Enjoy!