mussels

Recently among specials offered by Reposado in Palo Alto, dishes featuring mussels (which I’m very fond of). Mussels have been mentioned a number of times on this blog, but have never gotten special attention. Now their day has come. Mussels in Spicy Tomato Sauce, on pasta (not from Reposado):

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From Wikipedia, with unsurprising news about multiple uses of the common name mussel:

Mussel is the common name used for members of several families of clams or bivalve molluscs, from saltwater and freshwater habitats. These groups have in common a shell whose outline is elongated and asymmetrical compared with other edible clams, which are often more or less rounded or oval.

The word “mussel” is most frequently used to mean the edible bivalves of the marine family Mytilidae, most of which live on exposed shores in the intertidal zone, attached by means of their strong byssal threads (“beard”) to a firm substrate. A few species (in the genus Bathymodiolus) have colonised hydrothermal vents associated with deep ocean ridges.

In most marine mussels the shell is longer than it is wide, being wedge-shaped or asymmetrical. The external colour of the shell is often dark blue, blackish, or brown, while the interior is silvery and somewhat nacreous [pearl-like].

The common name “mussel” is also used for many freshwater bivalves, including the freshwater pearl mussels. Freshwater mussel species inhabit lakes, ponds, rivers, creeks, canals, and they are classified in a different subclass of bivalves, despite some very superficial similarities in appearance.

Freshwater zebra mussels and their relatives in the family Dreissenidae are not related to previously mentioned groups, even though they resemble many Mytilus species in shape, and live attached to rocks and other hard surfaces in a similar manner, using a byssus. They are classified with the Heterodonta, the taxonomic group which includes most of the bivalves commonly referred to as “clams”.

… Mussels can be smoked, boiled, steamed, roasted, barbecued or fried in butter or vegetable oil.

Etymological notes. The name mussel has nothing to do with Mussulman, an archaic term for Muslim, which (according to NOAD2) came into English in the 16th century from Persian musulmān (originally an adjective), from, yes, muslim.

Then there’s muscle, which is etymologically ‘little mouse’ (Latin musculus, a metaphorical term), so at first you might think that this word has nothing to do with mussel, but no: according to NOAD2, English got mussel from other Germanic languages, which ultimately got it, in another bit of metaphor, from Latin musculus.

Emboldened by this, I considered byssus and byssal (see above) and wondered whether these words could have anything to do with abyss. The noun byssus is ultimately (through Latin) from Greek bussos ‘depth, bottom’, since the mussel, when attached by the threads, rests on them (and feeds by opening its two shells. As for abyss, NOAD2 has it from Late Middle English in the sense ‘infernal pit’, coming via late Latin from Greek abussos ‘bottomless’ —  a– ‘without’ + bussos.

The creature up close. In a photo:

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Marine blue mussel, Mytilus edulis, showing some of the inner anatomy. The white posterior adductor muscle is visible in the upper image, and has been cut in the lower image to allow the valves to open fully.

Getting mussels. I have gathered mussels (Mytilus edulis, in fact) in the wild, back in the early 60s, while visiting friends in Rockport MA (on the tip of Cape Ann). At the time, mussels were moving (in the U.S.) from food that only impoverished Italian immigrants would gather and eat to an increasingly trendy and fashionable food.

Then my family moved from Cambridge MA to Urbana IL, which was at the time a desert for interesting foodstuffs, and we had to find sources that would ferry such items from Chicago, or ship them, refrigerated, by air, or (for less perishable items) ship them by mail. We found a wonderful source in NYC that would mail all sorts of stuff to foodies stranded in the provinces — the place is now long gone, since many places in the provinces have become a lot less provincial. In any case, this firm would ship us cans of Danish mussels in brine, so we didn’t go mussel-less. We continued taking advantage of the company for some years after we moved to Columbus OH, which was less of a desert for interesting food than Urbana, but scarcely up to what we had gotten accustomed to from living close to NYC, Philadelphia, and Boston (and the Atlantic Ocean).

These days you can still get those Danish mussels in brine, but also canned marinated mussels from Spain, canned smoked mussels, and canned pickled mussels (mussels en escabeche). From Spain:

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Or you can get yourself some fresh mussels, de-beard them and scrub them, then steam or boil them, and serve them with a white wine sauce:

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One Response to “mussels”

  1. Robert Coren Says:

    The best mussels I have had anywhere were in New Zealand — specifically the New Zealand green-lipped mussel (Perna canaliculus) — so, not a Mytilus at all. They’re enormous, and delicious.

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