13 SEPTEMBER 2003, Page 75

Cheap and cheerful

Simon Courtauld

T am ashamed to recall that, ten or so lyears ago, to accompany an article written for Harpers & Queen on, I think, some of the food to be found on the coasts of

Britain, I was persuaded to allow myself to be photographed with shirt-sleeve rolled up and a mussel balanced on my forearm. 'Mussel man', or something equally embarrassing, was the headline given to the piece; and the ribald comments I received were all deserved. It wasn't even a British mussel, but one of those large bivalves from New Zealand which are sometimes unappealingly described in supermarkets as 'green-lipped'.

Home-grown mussels, gathered oneself from rocks which are submerged at high tide, are no less tasty for being smaller. Larger ones, which can be found at the mouths of estuaries and in harbours where sewage may be responsible for their size, should probably be avoided, but these days farmed mussels of an equivalent size are grown off the west coast of Scotland on ropes suspended from floating platforms.

Popular as they are in Britain, and in Ireland, one thinks first of France as the home of mussels, and, in my case, of that ubiquitous, wonderfully cheap, and much advertised dish of mules frites (which does not, as I once thought, mean fried mussels). I well remember eating bowls of them one evening, sitting at a table in the vietvc port of La Rochelle and watching the sun go down behind the twin towers at the harbour entrance.

Almost any dish has to start with the steaming of the mussels, in a little white wine or cider, with chopped shallot and parsley. One is told not to use any mussels whose shells are open before they are cooked, but they need not be discarded until they have first been tapped sharply on a hard surface. If the mussel is alive, it will close its shells and is quite safe to use. Apart from the traditional way with mussels a la mariniere, there are moules a la creme, nicoise (with a pestou sauce), bordelaise (with tomato, garlic and breadcumbs), aridgeoise (with pieces of sausage and ham, which I had last month south of Toulouse) and, a favourite of mine, mouclade.

I was shown how to do this dish a couple of years ago at Rick Stein's Padstow Seafood School. The liquor from the cooked mussels (minus the last spoonful or two, which may be sandy) should be stirred into a sauce consisting of melted butter, chopped garlic, curry powder, a little flour, brandy and saffron. When this is simmering, add creme fraiche, reduce the sauce slightly and pour it over the mussels.

At the cookery school you may also do a clam chowder, which works equally well with mussels. Chopped bacon and onion are gently fried, then added to a saucepan of milk, cream, diced potatoes, bay leaf and mussel liquor and boiled for about five minutes. Add the chopped mussels and parsley at the last minute. A mussel soup can be made by playing around with any of these ingredients in various combinations. If you put together the onion, garlic, saffron, cream and parsley, with some sliced tomatoes and leeks and a little rice, you have the Potage Billy-By originally created by Maxim's in Paris.

When I gather mussels myself, I sometimes remove them from their shells after steaming. then immerse them in olive oil and lemon juice, to be eaten cold as a snack with French bread. Mussels also go well with spinach, and in an omelette, if they are small. Which reminds me of Elizabeth David's delicious recipe for les oeufs du pecheur, apparently invented by a French dressmaker. Poached eggs are placed on pieces of fried bread in ramekin dishes, covered with hot cream and grated cheese briefly melted in the oven. The relevance of the pecheur is that the eggs are poached in the liquor obtained from cooking a few pints of mussels.

Next weekend I shall be in what is probably the mussel capital of Europe — Vigo, in northern Spain — where hundreds of thousands of rope-grown mussels supply more than 50 per cent of the total European market. Vigo is also Spain's principal fishing port and I have been invited to its World Fishing Exhibition — where the interests of this column, and of Britain's fishermen, will of course be at the top of my agenda throughout the weekend.