“I have gathered a posy of other men’s flowers and nothing but the thread that binds them is mine own” – Michel de Montaigne

Over the years I have accumulated an awful lot of cookbooks. I buy and read them in the same way young children once devoured comics. And apart from an increasing reliance on poetry, I rarely respond to the call of fiction anymore.

Within the cookbook canon, my attraction to the printed word has been slowly transformed. The pull of publications based on the outlook of professional chefs with a hankering for pop-star status – forever manifesting swanky recipes with a roll call of esoteric ingredients – has dramatically waned. More and more I yearn for a back-story, the base notes; the essential context of a dish. It is this anchoring framework that lets you know where the recipes originated, the traditions and customs that caused them to be tried and tested, and an introduction to the people that refined and respected them. It reflects how we live and how we used to live, and it opens the door to the empirical nucleus of cultures we may only glimpse when looking at a map, the cook’s equivalent of terroir perhaps.

Contextual cookbooks also have the power to guide us from the fleetingly external to the imminently practical, with the original spirit of a dish capable of retrieval in the comfort and congeniality of our own kitchen.

I’d like to boast that my links to such gastronomy began with the hallowed paperbacks of Elizabeth David, Jane Grigson or Richard Olney , but I’m afraid my initial interest arrived courtesy of the box. Early TV appearances of Keith Floyd, the Roux brothers Delia Smith and Gary Rhodes were the first call to arms. It was a while before the penny dropped and I could begin to find my way past the culinary spectacle to the pragmatic, home-cooked food that pleases rather than dazzles.

I’m still on that journey, finding comfort and security by cooking with others in mind, frequently with the added support of a handful of fine chef/restaurateurs, some of whom have thankfully turned to writing alongside their own home cooking. Alistair Little, Simon Hopkinson and Rowley Leigh are but three erudite British examples I lean upon regularly. It was the latter who made the transition abundantly clear in his hipflask-sized edition of No Place Like Home (2000). But Rowley’s more recent opus; A Long and Messy Business (2018) is a treasure of technique, flair, reverence and innovation whilst at the same time cleaving to exalted culinary traditions. He effortlessly provides page-turning tales, something he shares with both Little and Hopkinson. And although this a grand cookbook in so many ways, it’s not dissimilar to the Georgian terraces of Spitalfields, dwellings that display a determined façade, yet conceal a surprising wealth of small, cosy rooms within.

In other posts I have referred to a number of exquisite recipes from this book, but with the mussel season in full swing along the Norfolk coastline, this dish regularly occupies the kitchen.

I also hope it offers a delicious variant to Moules marinières which Nick, the designer of the site you are perusing, rates as the most desirable of his ‘Desert Island dishes’. Having spent the best part of his life in Norfolk, he’s one of a throng of local residents who maintain an insatiable desire for these glistening, black-shelled beauties, conveniently gathered from the North Sea. So why, when from Brittany to the cafés of Brussels the French, Dutch and Belgians regularly sit down to scoff plates of Moules marinières or Moules frites, do the rest of us around the UK appear so reticent to engage with these fine examples of inexpensive, ready-to-go, fast food dishes?

Thai Mussels from A Long and Messy Business (2018) by Rowley Leigh

2kg mussels

1 shallot

2 cloves garlic

1 walnut sized piece of root ginger

1 stick lemongrass

1 green chilli

3 lime leaves

100g basmati rice

2 tbs sunflower or similar neutral cooking oil

2 tsp fish sauce

75ml dry white wine

100ml coconut milk

1 bunch coriander

Rinse the mussels in plenty of cold running water before scraping them clean and removing their beards.

Rinse them again and hold in reserve.

Peel and finely chop the shallot, garlic and ginger (enough to produce a tablespoon).

Cut the lemongrass into the finest possible slices.

Split the chilli, remove the seeds and chop finely.

Cut the lime leaves into very fine shreds.

Rinse the rice in several changes of cold water.

Bring a pot of well-salted water to the boil, add the rice and cook for nine minutes.

Drain the rice and keep warm.

While the rice is cooking, heat the oil in a large saucepan, casserole or wok and fry all the chopped aromatics for a couple of minutes before adding the mussels.

Turn the mussels in the mixture before adding the fish sauce and white wine then seal the pot with a well-fitting lid.

Shake the pan a couple of times and check that the mussels are done after a few minutes.

As soon as the mussels are done, tip them and their liquid into a colander suspended over a large bowl.

Strain the liquid back into the casserole and reduce at a fast boil for a minute or two.

Pour in the coconut milk and whisk well to amalgamate.

Coarsely chop the coriander and add to the sauce.

Divide the rice between four bowls and pile the mussels on top. Pour the aromatic broth over the mussels.

Wine thoughts

The grape variety, Furmint, is not a common sight along the shelves of brand-driven, supermarket varietals, but it is increasingly available from adventurous wine merchants. Without doubt one of the most revered white wines of Hungary, and although its fame largely rests on the part it plays in providing the famous Hungarian dessert wine; Tokaji Aszú, it makes a substantial, finely perfumed, dry wine in its own right – desirable virtues it shares with Riesling. With the racy demands from this chilli-spiced dish, Furmint rose effortlessly to the challenge. Time and again, beyond the simple but generous refreshment it provided, there was delicious support from full-blown fruit flavours reminiscent of kiwi, citrus and ripe apple with a surprising finish of warm ginger and creamy, baked quince. A delight!