Today we are going to talk about Moules. MMMmmmmoules. When you see a sign like the one here, it is usually a good sign you have found a reliable place to eat your moules frites (mussels with fries, for those of you unfamiliar with the term). Moules frites is a very working class dish, but to my mind it's one of those examples of the working classes getting the better end of the deal. (Pot au feu, on the other hand, is not. Watery beef and over-cooked vegetables, not so good.)
Why is the sign a good sign? Because it's a temporary affair and only put up when the café has received a fresh consignment of mussels. If a café has mussels on the permanent menu, you can be fairly sure that they using frozen ones (unless, perhaps, if you live in Belgium or near the sea).
Another good sign, observed by me on the way to work, is a fish delivery van parked near your favourite café and a man striding towards the café with two big bags of mussels. I know where I'm lunching...!
So I toddled down to my favourite café and ordered myself some mussels. Ever conscious of my too-large waistline, I asked for salad with them, instead of the usual fries. I had to wait a little while, which was also a good sign: mussels do not take long to steam, so if you have to wait it probably means they are making them to order instead of giving you someone else's leftovers. (When you lunch at two in the afternoon, you get used to someone else's leftovers and rather tired of them too.)
When they did arrive, steaming and fragrant, they were accompanied by the ubiquitous fries. I don't know if the waiter forgot or was just feeling indulgent towards me. Poor thing, she really would prefer fries, wouldn't she? Knowing this waiter, I wouldn't be surprised. He's very kind. The fries were golden and crispy. I didn't send them back.
The first time I tried mussels in Paris was many many years ago in a restaurant called Bofinger near Bastille. A kindly elderly gentleman leaned across to the table where I sat with my friends, all of us struggling to extract mussels with small forks. Winking, he took one of the empty shells in his hand and demonstrated their pincer-like qualities. "Like thees. Much easier!" And I have never looked back. What a nice guy.
The classical way to cook mussels is Moules Marinières. This does not mean "marinated" but "sailor style". I don't know why steaming them in white wine, garlic and shallots is typical of sailors, but there you are. I just do the research, I don't make the rules. My huge bowl of mussels came accompanied by a large empty pot for the empty shells and a spoon for drinking up the juices once you have finished the mussel. And this is the best part. If you ever go to Paris and eat mussels, heed this last piece of advice: the sauce left at the bottom of the pot is the most delectable thing you will ever taste. You may need to tip the pot to get a deep layer of juice, because there will probably be sand and you want to let it sink to the bottom. Dip your fries in it, ask for more bread, or just do what I do: use the spoon and make like it's soup. But whatever you do, do not waste this delicious sauce.
3 pounds of fresh mussels, scrubbed as well as you can and beards removed
1/2 bottle of dry white wine
3-4 shallots, finely minced
2 cloves of garlic, pressed
1/2 cup parsley
1/2 cup crème fraîche
Put the wine, garlic and shallots in a deep pot and bring to a boil. Let boil for a couple of minutes to cook the shallots and garlic and then add the washed mussels. It's impossible to scrub them too much - inevitably you will get some sand in the finished product. A sad fact, but here's a tip: "washing" the cooked mussels by swirling them in the sauce at the bottom of the pot while eating will get rid of much if not all of the residue sand. I digress. Cover the pot tightly and cook for about ten or fifteen minutes. If you have a glass lid, you can see when the mussels open and leave them on the heat for a few minutes more. Put the mussels in serving bowls. Mix the crème fraîche and chopped parsley with the remaining sauce, strain it and pour it over the mussels. Serve with lots of bread and (if you are not dieting) fries.
If you prefer to have someone else do the cooking, I can still recommend Bofinger, a classic for all seafood and especially seafood platters:
3 r Bastille 75004 PARIS
+33 1 42 72 87 82