I cannot tell you the number of early memories I have of mussels. They are countless. Almost…mundane, in a way. It’s not, say, an oyster. Kept almost always on its beautiful shell and served with delicate mignonettes that try to accent without pulling focus. Mussels are like the poor man’s oyster. Of course, they are nothing alike. But in my early memories, that’s how I compared them.
But this post is not about oysters. Or about early memories. It is about mussels. And new memories.
See we recently traveled to Europe. I love how that can slide off my tongue (or, you know, fingers) all casual-like. The truth is it still feels like a big deal. I hope it always will. But yes, since my husband is French and his entire family is in France, it means we get to travel to his homeland every two years and chalk it up to ‘something we’re doing for them’. The truth? We both know he is thrilled to see his family and friends and I am thrilled to be along for the ride.
This last trip? It was pretty incredible. Remember à la mère de famille? And our little jaunt over to Ireland? Like I said, pretty incredible. Another highlight? The one day of the entire trip where we were completely and utterly, on our own.
Have I mentioned my day job? No? I am an English teacher for a French company. So I have all these students living in different parts of France that tell me all about where they live. One of the things I love about France is it’s diversity. Particularly from the perspective of a Canadian, who needs to travel a good 12 hours to reach another Province where the Tim Hortons will be undoubtedly (and oddly, somehow comfortingly), the same. The fact that a mere few hours of travel could result in different architecture, history, climate, cuisine,… is supremely fascinating to me. So I made it a goal that with each visit, we could start to incorporate a new region in France. First trip, we visited The Alps. Second trip, Provence and The Côte d’Azur. Third trip? It was time to see Normandie.
Normandie (Normandy) was beautiful. Such a unique style and versatile unto itself. Farmland, ocean, quaint cobblestone towns. It was completely charming. We got on the road somewhat early (it wouldn’t have been a perfect day if we couldn’t have slept in a little, right?) and took our time driving to Basse-Normandie. We stopped where we wanted, when we wanted. When we reached Deauville we parked the car and spent several hours running, laying, and dancing on the beach. It was freezing. It was bliss.
After a casual walk along the pier, we headed to Trouville to walk around the town.
Have you ever traipsed around undiscovered territory with absolutely no objective in mind other than to discover? I hadn’t. At least, not with another person. And it was so…unwinding. Walking together, arm in arm, tranquility broken only by one or the other suddenly urging, “Do you have the camera? Can I have it?!” to capture some quiet, otherwise insignificant detail of what caught our eye.
One of our best discoveries? The pâtisserie that satisfied us so completely and opportunely that we did not even remember to capture the name of it. But we did manage to capture what we ate. Cause we ate good.
Religieuse au chocolat, tartelette aux pistaches et cerises, café au lait… we forgot where we were. We knew only what we tasted.
After more meandering through the town; in and out of shops, watching a group of older gentlemen play a rather competitive game of boules, playing our own hypothetical game of which-beachfront-house-should-we-buy, it was time to choose a supper spot.
Since we had time to kill, we really took the task seriously. I have never popped into so many different restaurants, bistros, or brasseries in one day. Never looked over so many menus or chalkboards, never carefully watched so many waiters prepping tables, or rated various decor so scrupulously. It felt like shopping for a wedding dress. Only more important.
We finally settled on Les Mouettes. After moving one of the tiny tables out so that I could squeeze into the booth, we were handed the carte des vins. The waiter was openly unimpressed by our selection, (I mean, come on, we had already spent most of our budget on pastries!) which only served to make our day feel that much more authentic. We were in France.
We ordered moules frites, which the menu du jour was boasting and everyone around us was gobbling up amid comfortable chatter. Of course, we eavesdropped. All the conversation was about food. How perfect is that? The fact that we had made the right choice of where to eat was compounded when the older couple sitting next to us got up and left half a bottle of white wine on their table. Naturally, we were very concerned this wine was going to go to waste. That is, until the waiter came and familiarly wished them a good night while assuring them he would have their bottle reserved for the next day’s dinner. Locals. Who come all the time! The lady must have seen my wide eyes, because she leaned in and told us what a wonderful restaurant this was, “…et ils vont vous offrir un p’tit Calvados à la fin du repas. C’est gratuis!” (“…and they will bring you a little glass of Calvados at the end of your meal. For free!”)
A delicious digestive to finish off a fantastic meal. Thanks to Normandie, I now see mussels as anything but mundane. So here is my Normandy bistro dish at home!
a generous glug of olive oil
1 small white onion, chopped
3/4 cup white wine
4 tbs almond pesto
1 cup heavy (35% cream)
1/4 cup water
sea salt and cracked black pepper, to taste
Depending on the mussels you can get your hands on, you may need to clean and de-beard them yourself.
Scrub your potatoes clean, cause we’re keeping the skin on! With a large knife, slice into, well, fries!
Once your mussels are ready, heat a pot of vegetable oil over low to medium heat. It should be hot enough that it sizzles and bubbles when tested with a piece of potato, but not in a scary, uncontrollable way.
While your oil is heating, heat a frying pan over medium heat. Add oil to your pan, then your chopped onion. Sauté until starting to soften. Add wine and let reduce a bit. Just a couple mins.
Remember that almond pesto we made a couple months ago? Through a miracle in the form of being gifted a big batch of pesto from a neighbor, I actually hadn’t finished the almond pesto. So I used it here. And now it’s gone. And I am sad. But it was a great way to finish it off! So add the pesto the the pan with the cream and water. (I poured the water into the empty pesto jar and shook it around wildly. Adds some flavor to the water and makes the jar easier to clean! Plus, it’s fun to shake stuff.) Season with salt.
Your oil should be ready to drop your fries into.
Add mussels and simmer 10-15 minutes until mussels open and look good enough to burn your fingers for sake of snatching one out of the pan.
Once fries are golden and floating at the surface of the oil, transfer to paper towel to absorb the oil. Season with sea salt flakes.
Serve with mussels and your favorite white wine.
For a time, I was frustrated that we had not been more diligent about taking a picture of the charming bistrot or actually paying attention to the name of the pâtisserie. But now, well it just sums up the kind of day we had. We were floating. Floating through Normandy.