While many of us like to enjoy a batch of steamed fresh blue mussels on a chilly winter evening, few of us know the lengths that Atlantic Canadian mussel farmers go to in bringing them to market.
From the spring until fall, farmers harvest mussels by pulling up ropes that have been suspended in the ocean. But in the winter, it’s not quite as straightforward.
Popular demand for mussels does not leave with the warm weather, meaning the supply must continue even when the farms are covered with ice. Someone has to harvest this delicious shellfish, and that’s a job for the hardiest men and women of Eastern Canada.
Facing freezing temperatures, the farmers head out looking like an arctic convoy, bundled up and wearing polarized glasses to protect their eyes from the glare of the sun. A GPS leads the farmer to brightly colored poles in the ice that mark the mussel farm below. It’s easy to get disoriented when you’re a couple miles offshore in the all-white environment of the snow-covered ocean.
At the farm site, a member of the crew cuts holes in the ice for a diver who goes in the water and connects the mussel ropes to a winch that will then haul them out. The ice here can be four feet deep and won’t melt until late April.
As the crew lifts and handles the mussel lines being retrieved from the water, they are freezing cold from the wind. A freezing 14 degrees on the ocean feels much more extreme than on land with the biting cold wind that comes off the ice. With wind-burned skin and numb fingers, the crew works quickly, transferring the mussels to the insulated containers that will be brought to the processing plant later that day where they’ll get ready for market.
It’s a remarkable journey that takes the blue mussel from a farm under four feet of ice to crushed ice in a supermarket waiting to be brought home with you for dinner … and all within a couple of days. Strong Atlantic Canadian families have prospered for decades in this often harsh climate thanks to the sustainable nature of the mussel farming industry, and those who enjoy feasting on the easy-to-prepare, delicious and nutritious natural wonder of the ocean.
For information on Atlantic Canadian farmed blue mussels, their “green” sustainable growth and harvest, and for recipes packed with good nutrition, visit the Canadian Mussel Industry Council website. Also featured on the website is a chance to win a trip for two to San Francisco.
Here’s an example of the recipes you’ll find on the site:
Billi bi Soup
Preparation time: 5 minutes
Cooking time: 15 minutes
2 pounds of fresh blue cultured mussels
2 shallots, coarsely chopped
2 small onions, quartered
2 sprigs of parsley
1 pinch cayenne pepper
1 cup dry white wine
2 tablespoons butter
1/2 bay leaf
1/2 teaspoon of thyme
2 cups 35 percent cream
1 egg yolk, lightly beaten
1 pinch salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Stir the fresh blue mussels in a colander while rinsing in tap water. Set aside for a few minutes. Tap any that are open and discard those that don’t close in response to the tap.
Place mussels in a large pot with the shallots, onion, parsley, salt, pepper, cayenne pepper, wine, butter, bay leaf and thyme. Cover and bring to a boil. Simmer five to 10 minutes, or until the fresh blue mussels have opened. Reserve mussels for another use, or remove them from shells to use as a garnish. Discard any mussels that do not open.
Strain the liquid through a double thickness of cheesecloth.
Bring liquid to a boil, and add cream.
Return to boil, and remove from heat.