You have to be very careful with mussels. I am not talking about the cooking process, which is a relatively simple affair; as long as you clean them well and take them off the heat as soon as they open rather than allowing them to overcook and dry up, it’s a doddle. The care is in making sure they are fresh and yet, not quite.”
Rowley Leigh. A Long and Messy Business (2018)

In spite of the modern schtick attached to foraging, collecting your own can be a risky pursuit. Commercially grown mussels are safely purged in fresh water, often spending a couple of days in purification tanks to relieve them of impurities and most importantly; salt. When they finally turn up at your local fishmonger, if you still have one that is, they should be ready to cook.

As a wine taster for many years I discovered that smell rather than taste (although they are rarely mutually exclusive) is the best route to judgement. I would advise a good sniff of your mussels, if they do not smell sweet and salty, steer well clear.

Living only a dozen miles from ancient beds in the North Sea, mussels are a regular feature in our kitchen, and nothing more regular on our table than Moules à la Marinère. The recipe first arrived from Normandy and Brittany in northern France where mussels are still grown on Bouchots, wooden stakes planted deep in the offshore sands nearby the landmark Mont-Saint-Michel. Like the shores of East Anglia, these coastal waters are plankton rich and, pollution-willing, they provide sweet, fat, yolk-yellow mussels all year round, although traditionally they are best eaten only when there’s an r in the month. A breeding period, so concentrated during the other 4 months, would wear anybody out.

From Raymond Blanc’s Kitchen Secrets (2012)

Serves 4.
2-2.5kg very fresh good-quality mussels
100ml dry white wine
20g unsalted butter
1 small white onion, peeled and very finely chopped
4 bay leaves
8 thyme sprigs
2 tbsp whipping cream
3 tbsp roughly chopped flat-leaf parsley
Wash the mussels thoroughly in a bowl under cold running water, removing any barnacles and beards that are still present.
Discard any mussels that float, including those that are closed.
Drain the mussels in a colander.
Meanwhile, boil the wine in a small pan for 30 seconds.
To cook the mussels in a large saucepan over a high heat, melt the butter.
Add the onion, bay leaves and thyme, stir and then add the wine after 10 seconds.
Bring to the boil, add the mussels and cover with the tight-fitting lid.
Cook for 2–3 minutes until the mussels open.
Stir in the cream and chopped parsley.
To serve the mussels, tip into a large dish or divide among warmed soup plates.
Provide your guests with finger bowls and serve with lots of good French bread to mop up the wonderful juices.

Wine thoughts

In northern France, and anywhere you stumble across a coastline and a café, a basic, crisp white vin de table would do the trick with the Moules. Always good for both cooking and eating with this dish. My preference in Brittany and Norfolk alike is a bracingly lean Muscadet de Sèvre-et-Maine, sur lie.