PHOTOGRAPHY BY JESSICA TUNIS
Their shells are the color of midnight and deep water, but wild California mussels (Mytilus californiensis) are found at the Pacific shore, in rocky intertidal areas of the open coast. Their elongated shells, bristled with barnacles and beard, hide a delicate, succulent orange flesh that needs nothing more than a little steaming to prepare. Imagine a fire on the beach and a cast iron Dutch oven. There is a crusty loaf, a simple white wine, garlic sauce and the mussels in a basket, clacking softly against one another, gathered from the intersection of sea and stone.
We’ve always loved foraging and eating outdoors, but in these times especially, there is almost no more pleasurable way to pass the afternoon than on the beach with a small group of friends, gathering and preparing a simple wild meal. The brisk air whisks the aerosols away, and a crackling hardwood fire warms cold fingers, stiff from prying shellfish from the rocks. Roll up your pant legs, consult the tide book and remember never to turn your back to the ocean. Mussel season is here.
The old adage that mussels should only be harvested in months spelled with an R is a false one, at least for our climate and ecosystem. The warm water currents that can lead to red tides are often still present here in September and October, so the mussel season is officially closed from May 31–Oct. 31, to reduce the likelihood of shellfish poisoning. (See sidebar for more details.) Once you’ve checked the calendar and called the biotoxin monitoring hotline to check in, you’ll need a fishing license, available for the day or for the entire year, at sporting goods and marine supply stores. Keep it on your person at all times while foraging or fishing; the fines for non-compliance are steep.
An individual is permitted to gather up to 10 pounds of mussels a day with a fishing license, so a scale may be in order, but few other tools are permitted, as California law requires mussels to be gathered by hand; no crowbars, trowels, or other tools are allowed. Thick leather gloves can protect the hands, but may also reduce dexterity as you pluck the choicest morsels from their rocky beds. Any low tide—up to +0.5—will suffice to gather mussels, though the lower the tide, the larger the mussels may be. Still, bigger isn’t always better; a huge 8-inch mussel may have a rubbery texture, while a more diminutive but still hefty 4-inch mussel approaches the divine. Being filter feeders, mussels may contain a fair bit of sand, and mussels closer to the sandy seafloor will contain more than those harvested a foot or two higher.
The old adage that mussels should only be harvested in months spelled with an R is a false one.
After you harvest them, keep the mussels cool in a bucket of clean seawater. Some folks like to take the mussels home and soak them overnight in cold water, allowing them to flush out most of the sand or grit from their digestive tracts by the next day. That’s all well and good, but if you want to cook them on the beach that day, there are other tricks to use. We harvest into a basket, then clean the mussels one by one and drop them into a bucket of fresh seawater after they are cleaned. Even a 30-minute soak in the water is often enough to get the mussels to open up and expel a bit of their grit. Use a stiff bristled brush, or even a sharp scraping stone or knife, to remove the tough beard from the outside of the mussels, then drop them into the water to stay cool while you clean the others. Discard any with cracked shells or open shells that do not close when tapped.
Wait a while, build a good fire, pop open a beer or sip some cool sauvignon blanc. When the coals are nice and hot, gather seawater from beyond the foaming waves, where it should have no suspended sand particles. If you are unsure how much grit might be suspended in the water, you can always gather it in a container and allow it to settle, then carefully pour off the clear water into the cooking vessel. Rake a bed of hot coals off to the side, but keep a bit of wood burning nearby to replenish the coals if needed.
Next, set a Dutch oven over the coals and fill it with a few inches of clean seawater. Drop in a steamer basket, so that there is space between the bottom of the pot and the basket. When the water has reached a hard boil, drop the mussels in, a dozen or so at a time, and add a few slices of lemon. Steam the mussels over rapidly boiling water for 7–10 minutes. As they cook, the shells will open and any remaining sand should slip beneath the bottom of the steamer basket. The roiling foam of the boiling water rinses them clean.
Slurp the mussels straight out of their shells or place them in a bowl and drizzle with white wine and garlic sauce. If you make the sauce at home and keep it in a thermos, you can avoid having to cook anything else on the beach! Handle each shell individually and savor the meeting of elements. Mop up excess sauce with a hunk of sourdough, if desired.
White Wine and Garlic Sauce For Mussels
Recipe courtesy of Jessica Tunis
SAFE FORAGING TIPS
In our area, mussels should generally be harvested only from November–April; the rest of the season is o limits. That’s because of the seasonal nature of red tides that sometimes beset our coastal waters. Red tides get their name from a natural, cyclical overgrowth of a category of phytoplankton known as dinoflagellates, the microscopic masses of which, when in full bloom, can stain the seawater with a reddish hue that is not always visible to the naked eye.
Red tides can be caused by several different species, and some (but not all) of these phytoplankton produce toxins that can be absorbed by filter feeders like shellfish. These toxins, if ingested, can cause serious illness, amnesia, paralysis and even death. The conditions that cause these blooms are carefully monitored and it is always a good idea, before harvesting mussels or any other seafood, to check the latest information regarding current seafood health advisories and quarantines.
Our central coastline is littered with Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) which provide varying levels of protection to the marine ecosystem— including mussels. Visit the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s MPA webpages to make sure you choose legal sites for harvesting mussels or other marine plants or invertebrates. https://wildlife.ca.gov/Conservation/Marine/MPAs/Network/Central-California
The California Department of Public Health maintains a toll-free number that makes it easy to keep tabs on any current outbreaks of shellfish poisoning. As the climate warms, we may see more red tides in our future, so don’t assume that because of the calendar date, everything is good to go. Call 1-800-553-4133 to confirm your safety before doing any coastal foraging.
Jessica Tunis lives in the Santa Cruz Mountains and spends her time tending gardens, telling stories, and cultivating adventure and good food in wild places.