My trip to North Wales to meet the Conwy ‘Mussel Men’ felt a little like going back in time. Conwy (www.conwy.com) itself is a stunning medieval town, enclosed within the walls of the town’s much intact thirteenth-century castle. So it seemed appropriate that the mussel men are still using an age-old rake fishing technique to catch their mussels.
The amazing thing about Conwy mussels is how large they are- so often, the mussels found in restaurants and supermarkets are tiny. The Conwy mussels are so large because they grow deep at the bottom of the estuary, where they have plenty to feed on from the sea and the rivers that run into the estuary. The general rule is that the deeper a mussel grows, the larger its size.
I learned from mussel men Trevor Jones and his son Tom that the tendency these days is for customers to be put off buying Conwy mussels because they have barnacles growing on them. This is such a shame because the barnacles are just so simple to scrape off with a blunt knife – and the Conwy mussels are tastier, fatter and juicier than the rope grown versions. Fortunately, many of the local restaurants and hotels, including the marvellous Castle Hotel (www.castlewales.co.uk), proudly serve the local mussel catch to their customers, good on them, I say.
From Conwy, after a short journey along the beautiful North Coast of Wales, I arrived at the pure waters of the Menai Straits. I met professional forager Yun Hider, who runs The Mountain Food Company (www.mountainfood.org), which supplies wild ingredients to some top London restaurants. Yun sees the world around him in a totally different way to most people – every hedgerow, mountainside, or coastline is rich with wild vegetables ready to be harvested. In all honesty, I was a little apprehensive about how these ‘sea vegetables’ would taste. Still, I was very pleasantly surprised to discover that plants such as Sea Purslane and Sea Beet are just as good as mainstream vegetables and a perfect accompaniment to fish.
We cooked a little onion, garlic, Chorizo, finely sliced Alexanders in a little oil, then added the fresh, scrapped mussels and a glass of wine. The lid was on and cooked for about 10 minutes until all the mussels were open and beautifully plump. We then had a side salad of purslane, gently part steamed, part poached the sea beet as accompaniments. I have to tell you. It was all totally delicious and fresh as a daisy……..mm there’s a thought, must try them also!!!