My love for English history and food tradition finds a natural extension to the coasts of Brittany and Normandy. Of all the molluscs, I rate the more working-class cousin of the aristocratic oyster with incredible esteem. It alone has a buttery quality in both texture and taste that allows it to become a likeable bedfellow to other flavours.
This recipe finds both balance in comforting warmth in cider and bacon fat and a broth that is aching to be mopped up with a torn off piece of hearty rye or spelt sourdough bread.
For the mussels :
1000g fresh mussels
1/2 stick butter
3 finely chopped garlic cloves
1 bottle Burrow Hill or any small batch dry cider
200g / 1 cup pork lardons or chopped pieces of streaky bacon
1 Kallo or Knorr vegetable mini stock pot
Put the butter, garlic and bacon in a large ( preferably iron ) heavy fry pan on medium high until the butter becomes brown. The idea is to keep it as high as possible to brown , but not burn the butter, so keep a close eye on this.
Once your butter and bacon are nicely browned add the cider and bring to a simmer for about 3-5 minutes, or until the fragrant steam no longer smells of alcohol.
Then add the stockpot and and 1 cup of water. Salt and pepper to taste and bring back to the simmer.
Add the mussels and use a ladle to bathe the mussels.
Cover with foil , bathing occasionally for about 5 minutes
Serve mussels in bowls dividing the broth equally. And don’t forget a bowl for discard shells and the sourdough to dip in the broth!
Our historical inspiration:
Central to the diets of rich and poor were fish and bread. Both had religious connotations and their use varied hugely by class. As a Catholic country before the 1540s, fish was prescribed in England for fast days and afterwards, was still eaten to promote the industry. Fish would typically be eaten at least three nights per week in households both rich and poor.
As Andrew Boorde wrote in his “Dyetary” in the 1540s, the country was well served by “sea-fysshe… fresh-water fysshe and …salt fysshe.” While the rich enjoyed shellfish, turbot, whale, porpoise and sturgeon, the poor made do with salted herring or dried cod. Storing and transporting it was a problem, so the best, freshest fish could be found at the coast, although medieval monasteries were famous for their carp ponds.
The bread they ate with it varied in colour, with the shade of it literally equating social status. The finest, white flour was baked into hand-sized loaves for the richest tables while the poorer ate brown or even black bread, made up from the flour of ground acorns, peas and beans.