Mussels in the Mussel Capital of the World
To eat a plateful of mussels in Havelock the greenshell capital of the world, was a must-do for Bear. His bucket list, his choice of eatery. We parked Mabel just off the main road and bimbled across to the Mussel Pot. The fence looked like fun and then two chaps welcomed us at the front door.
First fancying mussel chowder, Bear chose mussels with blue cheese.
Mussels have always been regarded as a fantastic food, not by me however. The look, texture and smell make them far from anything I have ever deemed a life necessity to try and nary one has ever got close to my lips, but Bear loves them. I don’t mind preparing them for him and cook them in a variety of ways. The same goes for all things shellfish, to watch someone swallow a raw oyster, as far as I’m concerned, pushes the vows of marriage to their extreme limit, why not cut a flip-flop up into similar sized portions and soak them in fish gravy, but there we are, each to his own.
Traditionally harvested from the shoreline by local and visiting Māori, Marlborough mussels were a drawcard for North Island Māori who would launch expeditions to gather kai moana, food of the sea, as well as locals who would gather regularly to supplement their diet. In 1969 a group of fishermen towed the first mussel barge into the Marlborough Sounds and anchored it in the Kenepuru. In the past forty-odd years since, the New Zealand aquaculture industry has evolved from a group of innovative pioneers to a professional, specialised and premium food production sector focused on environmental sustainability, food safety and value-added marketing. Most farms were originally started by independent farmers but today there is an increasing trend for sites to be owned by seafood companies. First attempts to farm mussels were based on Spanish raft cultivation techniques. There were superseded by the Japanese longline system which has been adapted and improved by New Zealand operators.
In 2011 the industry employed over three thousand New Zealanders and generated over $400 million of revenue. Of the $400 million industry revenue, $298 million was generated in exports. Aquaculture is already the world’s fastest growing primary industry and demand for aquaculture products is expected to strengthen significantly as the world’s population grows and wild-catch levels remain relatively static. New Zealand aquaculture products are exported to seventy nine countries and considered among the world’s best seafood, served at parties in New York and white tablecloth restaurants in London. The high quality of New Zealand coastal waters and the abundance of plankton, along with the prevalence of sheltered harbours and inlets create ideal conditions for aquaculture.
Time to get my head down to the business of concentrating on my fish and chips as the eating begins.........
The New Zealand green-lipped mussel, Perna canalicula, is endemic to New Zealand. When grown for aquiculture in New Zealand it is produced under the trademark name Greenshell. The bulk of the industry’s spat – baby mussels, are gathered on ninety mile beach where, considerable quantities of new settled spat attached to seaweed are washed up on the beaches. This spat is collected and quickly transported by air or truck to growers in other parts of the country. local spat catching also occurs in Golden Bay and Marlborough in selected bays. The spat is seeded out on spat ropes using cotton stocking at approximately one to five thousand per metre of rope. After three to six months, the nursery lines are lifted and the young spat are stripped from the ropes and reseeded on a final production rope at approximately one hundred and fifty to two hundred per metre. The mussel has a foot – sometimes called a tongue, which allows it to move over surfaces. Once the mussel finds a suitable site, fluid is shot down a groove in the foot and solidifies on contact with the sea water, anchoring the mussel in place. Mussels take between fifteen and eighteen months to grow to a shell size of seventy to a hundred millimetres.
Silly me, I ask for a closer look.
Suddenly interested I ask Bear about his experience with byssal threads. You can’t taste anything an they are not stringy which I thought they might be, but chewing the whole thing there are lots of textures. Oooo, perhaps too much information, I swallow and duck to my side salad. An interesting thing I did read, here in the restaurant, they don’t automatically throw away a shell that has stayed shut, neither have I. I have always opened and sniffed. Its all to do with what happens to the adductor muscle of the mussel I say knowledgably to himself, some disintegrate completely in hot water, some fall off one side. Oh, its a muscle is it, I didn’t know that, never tried it before. What did I say, silly me, next thing he’s prising one off to taste, well. Tastes like squid and chewy, not easy to get off though. Oh dear, have I got to try not to watch as he rummages through his empty shells thus far and eat those he hasn’t got to yet. Yep.
The diet of a mussel includes single cell algae and planktonic animals. Mussels are filter feeders and each mussel is capable of filtering about three hundred litres of water per day. With approximately nine hundred million mussels grown commercially in Marlborough Sound, this means a massive two hundred and seventy million tonnes of water is moved by mussels every day. The single biggest factor that can affect the water quality is the land run-off as a result of rainfall. A number of rain gauges are positioned throughout the mussel farm areas which are monitored by the New Zealand Food Safety Authority. The data collected determines which farms are open or closed for harvesting. The New Zealand mussel industry is known to operate one of the strictest quality assurance programmes in the world.
When the mussel farm is declared open, a harvesting boat will select a designated line and hauls on board the rope that is fully laden with mussels. The mussels are removed from the rope and are then de-clumped and washed. The mussels will go through a quick initial grading and are then collected into large bags for transporting. A single harvester will typically collect between fifty and seventy tonnes of mussels each day. The flow of mussels through the processing chain is rapid. The bulk of production takes less than thirty minutes from the beginning of the cycle to the final packaging for domestic or international distribution. Mussels are processed into many product forms including live, chilled, vacuum packed, frozen whole or half shell, layer packed meat, smoked marinated, crumbed, powdered, dried and stuffed. When the mussels arrive at The Mussel Pot they are checked to ensure all are alive and in good condition. The beards are trimmed purely for aesthetic purposes. The chef does not rip the beard out, as this kills the mussel. Well over half the local mussels contain the New Zealand pea crab. Current research is being done on the effects of the pea crab on the growth and ways to eliminate them from mussel farms. The Mussel Pot do not add salt to their mussels, they are naturally salty as they are so fresh and have not been constantly washed with fresh water.
The different sexes of mussels can be identified by their colour, I asked Bear to tidy his chosen chap up for a photograph. The flesh of a sexually mature male is creamy white while a female is reddish-apricot. Reproduction between male and female mussels happens outside the shell. Eggs and sperm are discharged into the water and fertilisation takes place. Most spawning occurs in late spring and early autumn but mussels have been known to be opportunistic and take advantage of favourable conditions of plentiful food and ideal temperatures.
At last, to my relief I thought the empty plate, the pile of empty shells meant I could return to normal life, no Bear saw the juice in the bottom of his pot and set about it with great gusto. I went back to busying myself reading the factoids.
ALL IN ALL NOT FOR ME