You’re standing on the beach as the sun sets on the horizon, your bare toes buried in the warm sand. You’re in a dream, totally mesmerized by the flames of the wood fire flickering up and around the pan of mussels slowly steaming open in a bath of good beer and fine herbs. The smell of ocean combined with the scent of fire and fresh seafood is raw and wild, fresh, carrying imaginings that can’t exactly be explained, but which are gifting you with a kind of passionate inner energy.
Check the weather report, grab your backpack and some friends and head out to the beach—you don’t even need to know how to swim because this isn’t about getting into the water. It’s about eating and it’s about living the outdoor life and foraging for your food*. You’ll be in good company—many top restaurants in the world today use foraged wild foods on their menus. One of the most well-known and respected is the famed Copenhagen restaurant Noma, where Rene Redzepi is all about foraging the best and most interesting foods to use in fabulous dishes.
Here’s what you need for basics: a beach with a picnic area that has built-in grills (hopefully with some picnic tables nearby); a lightweight pot big enough to hold the amount of mussels you want to cook; beer (that’s pretty easy, right?), a good baguette and some waterproof matches or a lighter. That’s the bare minimum. Also be sure to check to see if you need a license to collect shellfish as this is a requirement in many states in the U.S. To ease the process, bring an onion, some garlic, a sharp knife, a roll of paper towels, paper plates and a bag of self-igniting charcoal—unless you plan on gathering wood for a fire and are sure you can find enough of it dry and ready to use. If you’re worried about finding a grill (or if you don’t want to build one from rocks) bring a small grill, too—and if you’re not sure there are mussels at the beach you’re headed for, there’s no shame in bringing store-bought mussels just in case.
Now, to the hunt. Mussel harvesting is either a lot of fun or a pain in the neck, depending on your outlook. Dress accordingly in sneakers or rubber boots you can climb around wet rocks in without slipping—flip-flops don’t work well for this, and going barefoot isn’t a good idea. Here’s some very detailed information on the best way to get your mussels. Back at the beach, get your fire started and clean the mussels. Put them in the pot (the pot should have a lid, if it doesn’t bring some aluminum foil to use as a cover) with the beer and whatever other seasonings you like. Let it all come to a boil and cook for five to 10 minutes (or more, if it’s a low fire or a big pot). When the mussels have opened, they’re ready to eat. Scoop out onto your plates and eat with fingers, dipping chunks of crusty bread into the extra juices. Actually, maybe you better bring a few baguettes because one might not be enough.
Hopefully there’s more beer to drink with your beachcomber dinner. When the sun sets, it’s getting cool and the sand is cold between your toes, pack it all up, clean up your stuff and drive into town, where if you’re lucky there’s an ice cream shop with a double scoop just waiting for you.
*If you happen to be one of those people who would rather think about foraging and cooking on the beach than actually doing it in real life, mussels steamed in beer is a great thing to eat at home, too.
Main photo by Eugene Kim, CC BY 2.0
Karen Resta is a writer, a food culturalist, and a sometimes-fashionista who mostly loves ice cream and Brooklyn.