Mussels: from Farm to Table

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Located at the top of the South Island, Marlborough lays claim to some of New Zealand's cleanest water. Set amongst the idyllic scenery is one of the largest sites in the country's greenshell mussel industry, which I was lucky enough to visit last month.

I really enjoy cooking with greenshells. They're beautifully sweet and plump, and packed full of nutritional benefits such as a high omega-3 content, essential minerals and anti-inflammatory properties. As an inexpensive and healthy source of protein, they're hard to beat.

What makes them even better is the responsible way in which they are farmed, and I got to see this first-hand on my visit. The starting point was the Havelock Marina, and then we made our way through Pelorus Sounds. The weather wasn't on our side, but the mist and fog only added to the natural beauty of the many rugged bush islands that make up the Marlborough Sounds.

Wild mussels start their lives attaching themselves to clumps of seaweed before getting washed up ashore on Ninety Mile Beach, some 1,000km to the north. The spat (juvenile mussels) are then collected in their millions and transferred to nursery ropes for up to six months in the Sounds, where the water temperature is ideal for their growth.

Then they're re-seeded onto lengths of rope that can be up to 1-2km long and attached to large plastic buoys. It takes 12-24 months for mussels to reach their 100mm harvesting size. We passed a couple of boats heading back into shore, loaded high with sacks of freshly harvested mussels. The sight gave me an even greater appreciation of just how much hard work goes into growing this iconic New Zealand product. 

A highlight of the trip was getting to cook a pot of mussels on the back of the boat, and washing it down with a glass of local sauvignon blanc. Greenshell mussels are a staple of Kiwi dinners. And despite common fears, they're actually easy to cook. To make sure you get the best out of greenshell mussels, follow the tips below.

  • Select shiny, undamaged shellfish.
  • Trust your nose: fresh mussels should smell of the sea.
  • Before cooking, rinse lightly.
  • Remove beards by firmly gripping and pulling downwards on the strands.
  • Clean barnacles and other growths by scraping off with another shell.
  • Live mussels should close when lightly tapped; discard any that don't close.
  • Remove mussels as they open in the pot to avoid over-cooking.

Keep these in mind, and your mussels will turn out on point every time.

- James