A passage from Nigel Slater’s latest cookery book was the subject of discussion during our last trip to the Ehen (yes … I know .. I promised no more posts on the Ehen but I couldn’t resist this one). The book is Kitchen Diaries II and, on page 178 he writes: “… way north of Inverness, we spot mussels for sale that will form the backbone of a somewhat thrown-together but utterly delicious fish chowder”. Intriguing. The next paragraph continues: “Rather than the usual saltwater variety I use at home, our booty is actually the rare freshwater mussels, the sort I have only read about, never tasted.” ‘Booty’, I am beginning to think, may be a particularly appropriate word in this context. Slater continues: “Despite over half the global population of freshwater mussels being in this part of the world, they are almost never seen for sale because of their protected status.” Intriguing logic, Mr Slater, but half of not very many is hardly a justification for harvesting them. You’ll be bemoaning the lack of osprey on our menus next. But I interrupt: “Very occasionally, for environmental reasons, a licence will be given to sell these freshwater or ‘pearl’ mussels, and this is what we buy”. I am assured by colleagues in the Environment Agency and Scottish Natural Heritage that licences would never be issued for the sale of live mussels. Maybe Slater bought his mussels from a plausible bloke named Trotter operating out of the back of a Robin Reliant?
Time, then, to dispose of the evidence: “I have honestly never tasted anything quite like them, their flesh soft, almost jelly-like, and tasting the very essence of mussel, probably because they come from the river bed rather than the saline waters of the coast. We cook them for seconds, till their shells open, and sigh at the sheer unadulterated sweetness of their flesh. I feel honoured to have eaten them.”
“Honoured” is not, perhaps, the first word that springs to my mind. However, reader, savour Mr Slater’s words because it is the closest you will ever get to experiencing the taste of a freshwater mussel, which are protected by UK and European wildlife legislation. The celebrity chef that springs to mind at this point is Heston Blumenthal, who famously serves molluscs with a savoury porridge. Because, Mr Slater, porridge might well be on your menu soon.
Note for non-UK readers: “doing porridge” is a slang term for serving a prison sentence. Offences committed under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 can incur fines of up to £20000 or six months imprisonment.