The people of Belgium have an obsession with mussels—with or without the traditional accompaniment of frites.
As with many nations that have been invaded repeatedly over the centuries, Belgium has incorporated a variety of influences into its cuisine—but its location at a crossroads between Latin and Germanic cultures has resulted in this famous culinary distinction: “German portions served with French quality.”
One specialty that lends itself especially well to large portions—and a bit of French finesse—is a steaming, fragrant bowl of mussels. Belgium is obsessed with mussels, served with or without its famous frites. But the primary source of this obsession is neither France nor Germany, but the Netherlands. The most flavorful bivalves come from the Scheldt River, which connects western Belgium to the Netherlands and the North Sea. They are so prized, in fact, that when asked in 2009 to choose between Scheldt mussels and their love of country, the Belgian people chose the mussels. That year, the Dutch angered the Belgian government by failing to properly dredge their end of the river, resulting in reduced traffic to the Belgian port of Antwerp and, as a result, a loss in trade revenue. Belgian diners and restaurateurs were encouraged to boycott Scheldt mussels—but government officials couldn’t make it stick.
Today, while frites can still be found at humble little shops all over the country, mussels have evolved from a cheap peasant dish into a bistro-worthy affair. Our recipe, courtesy of Epicurious, is for a style known as moules marinieres—served just in broth, without the frites. The addition of tomatoes is a nod to Provence. We recommend eating them as the locals do: Use a discarded shell as a utensil to pluck out the bivalves, tweezer-like. And wash them down with beer, not wine.
After the recipe, watch the experts prepare this dish in a film from Epicurious, and download an easy-to-print PDF.
Belgian Moules Marinieres
- 2 teaspoons butter
- 3 garlic cloves, chopped
- 1 cup dry white wine
- 2 tablespoons half-and-half
- 2 1/2 teaspoons saffron threads
- 1 cup clam juice
- 4 scallions, thinly sliced
- 3 tomatoes, seeded, and chopped
- 3 tablespoons lemon juice
- 8 pounds mussels, scrubbed and debearded
- 2 1/2 tablespoons chives, chopped
Melt the butter in a large pot, then add the garlic. Sauté until the garlic is fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the wine, half and half, and saffron; simmer for 5 minutes. Add the clam juice, scallions, tomato, and lemon juice, scallions, tomato, and lemon juice; simmer for 5 minutes.
Add the mussels, cover, and stream until they are open, about 5-7 minutes. Shake the pot, holding down the lid with a kitchen towel, to redistribute the mussels. Discard any mussels that do not open. Divide the mussels into eight bowls; distribute the broth equally among the bowls, and top each with fresh chives.
Focus on Cleaning Mussels:
Hold the mussel under cold running water. Use a brush with stiff bristles to thoroughly scrub the mussel and remove grit, sand, and mud from the shell's exterior. Mussels—especially non-farmed ones—often have a dark, shaggy beard extending from each shell. Remove them for a neater appearance in the finished dish. After scrubbing a mussel, pull the beard away from the shell until taut, and then pull the beard down sharply toward the dark hinge. It will snap away easily. Removing its beard will kill the mussel, so perform this step just before cooking.
See the experts prepare this recipe—and demystify debearding mussels—in this film:
Perhaps you’ll experience the Belgian love of mussels when you join us for Romance of the Rhine & Mosel.