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When traveling to Spain try the Mussels in Valencia

Order Valencian Mussels and a glass of wine in one of the city’s oldest restaurants

When I walked into the dark, small corner bar I smelled wood. Old barrel wood that gave life to wines and vermouths. Once inside I sat on a high bar stood surrounded by wood barrels and took a deep breath. I’d been walking for a couple miles throughout Valencia, Spain, and had a hankering for mussels and a cold, crisp glass of white wine. So what better place to go than one of the oldest restaurants in Valencia, Casa Montaña, which opened in 1836.

Valencian mussels are available during the summer months. Photo by Christine Willmsen

Valencian mussels are available during the summer months. Photos by Christine Willmsen

As the waitress and even the menu described, these aren’t your average mussels and nothing like the typical mussels we find in the United States or in the Seattle area where blue or bay mussels, also known as Foolish mussels, are glued to rock beds.

Valencian mussels also known as clochinas are available only from May to August. When I opened the bowl, steamed poured out and small orange mussels appeared. The mussels were briny, fresh and dense, packing a flavor punch unlike their meatier sisters and brothers on the coast of California. I appreciated the fact that the dish was no frills. Just mussels in a bowl for about $5.50

That’s what some of the food in Spain is like – simple. While the country has a reputation of modern cuisine, with layers of flavor that often look like a masterfully painted plate, other restaurants and bars like Casa Montaña let the fresh food shine.

imageI sipped a glass of dry Albariño and nibbled on goat cheese with carmelized peppers ($2) and Txistorra red sausage ($2.50) for the finale of my lunch.

Casa Montaña is open most weekdays and Saturday from 1-4 p.m. and 8-11:30 p.m. I hope when you’re trekking through Spain you’ll think of this little bar as a place to stop at in Valencia.




How to harvest, prepare and cook fresh mussels

What’s not to love about mussels – they’re succulent, tender, salty and a bit sweet. Many of us have gone to the fish market or local grocery store and grabbed a bag of mussels sitting on ice and cooked a great bowl of mussels. But this time I wanted to go to the source. I wanted to be my own fishmonger. I wanted to grab my own dinner literally from the earth.

Hunting mussels can be a solitary adventure for the day or a great bonding experience with friends.  In my case, a group of friends went on the expedition and later each of us prepared the mussels in a different way.

A ferry and a short drive were the only things that stood between my posse and those black pearly mussels.

At Double Bluff State Park on Whidbey Island we walked along the beach at low tide and, at first, saw no mussels. But as we hiked closer to a large rocky bed we hit the jackpot. Soon I realized we were literally on a blanket of mussels. Thousands of them clutched to each other and small rocks. Plucking the mussels only the size of my thumb or bigger, I found my bucket full within a couple hours.

It was literally that easy. Back in the kitchen we had a mussel feast fit for the sea gods. The bivalves were so fresh and flavorful.

Mussels are a great choice of food for one person to prepare for many reasons. Within minutes you can steam the mussels in white wine and shallots or garlic and finish with fresh herbs. Just grab some french bread for dipping and a glass or two of Pinot Gris wine for sipping and you are set to relax after a hard day of work.

Also if you are entertaining friends, a quick mussel dish won’t keep you hostage in the kitchen while the rest of your soiree is kicking into high gear.

Below you’ll find tips on harvesting mussels, hints on preparing them in the kitchen and a great recipe. Don’t be intimidated by them and feel free to find your favorite way to enjoy them.

Harvesting Mussels:

  • Simply grab the mussel, twist and pull off.
  • Fill the bucket with cold water right from the harvest area and let them rest for a minimum of several hours. They will literally spit out sand and debris. This ensures you don’t have gritty mussels. Avoid soaking mussels in tap water.

Back at Home:

  • It’s time to crack open a beer or open up a bottle of white wine because you still have some work to do and you should reward yourself for such a catch. Pinot Gris and Sauvignon Blanc are great wines to pair with mussels.
  • Clean the mussels by rubbing off any debris from their shells.
  • Throw away any mussels that are cracked or remain open after tapping them on a surface.
  • Remove the beard, a small hairy spot where the two parts of the shell connect. Sometimes you can just pull it away, but scissors also work. Do this just before cooking.
  • Mussels you don’t plan on cooking right away should be removed from the cold water and placed in the coldest part of your refrigerator on a bed of ice with a damp cloth on top of them. Mussels will keep for up to three days.

Hot in the Kitchen: Venetian-Style Mussels

I adapted a recipe from Chef Walter Pisano of Tulio restaurant printed in Celebrated Chefs, Vol. 2. Feel free to play with the ingredients and put your own take on it.

1 tablespoon olive oil

3 clove of garlic sliced

3 pounds of mussels

5 ripe tomatoes, seeded and diced

¼ cup brandy

1 teaspoon grated lemon zest

½ cup slivered fresh basil

3 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

½ teaspoon dried red pepper flakes (more if you like spicy)

Heat oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the garlic and cook until golden brown. Add mussels and stir constantly for 2 minutes. Cover and cook for 2 more minutes. Then add tomatoes, brandy and lemon zest to the pan. Cook an additional 3-4 minutes or until the mussels have opened. Remove lid and gently stir in basil, parsley and pepper flakes. Serve immediately in shallow bowls.

Cheers Christine

Special thanks to friends Michelle, Chris and Tony