Jeeps McGee, my trusty vehicle, starts up with a gutsy roar. The performance exhaust shakes me with thunderous throaty vibrations. My coffee cup perched precariously on the dash spills while disco competes for attention on a station I don’t remember ever having set (was I really listening to this last night? Yikes!). My overnight duffle is happily absorbing the jus de chaussette I was very much looking forward to. Some happy New Year this is!
After an onslaught of holiday parties, I am throwing in the cocktail dress and pulling on the workboots. I sink a few bucks into Jeeps McGee’s big belly and put San Francisco in the rear view mirror. Pescadero here I come…
Me and McGee are so in our element. We are noisily cruising down 280, bouncing up and over the curvy Skyline mountains down to Highway 1. I reach Half Moon Bay and my 33-inch flame tread tires screech left onto the Coastal Highway.
Ahhhh, the ocean….
Today is beautiful. The Winter sun crisp illuminating the Pacific on my right like a bright and blinding sequined serpent. The fields on my left bleak and mostly tilled under with random rotting pumpkins left unloved. Cypress trees, like tortured twisted shadows with desperate outstretched arms edge the endless blue. Weathered farms dot the coast.
Farmer’s Kate and Jeff of Echo Valley Farm meet me at Pescadero beach with crowbars and baskets in tow. We find a giant wave washed rock a little too far out in the receding ocean covered with cloistered blue mussels. Prying tools in hand we go to work.
It’s low tide, we should be safe, the tide pools surrounding us are dry and thirsty. Sea cucumbers and anemones hibernate in the squinty bright sun.
Prying bivalves loose, and careful not to destroy the whole entire eco-system, we opt for the bigger ones. The small ones, although tender, are just too much work and not enough meat to show for it.
And then it happens, while our backs are turned and my farmer friends are happily chatting about Spring planting plans – the sea sneaks up on us and takes us all by surprise. We are super soaked!
We grab our gear and make a dash inland trying to find our footing in the tide pools that are now under water. How did that happen?
Back on the farm we dry off and prepare the mussels. This is not a quick process. Wild Mussels are sandy and bearded and covered with mini barnacles.
If storing mussels for a day (or two at the most), kept dry in a single layer in the refrigerator with a damp kitchen towel over top. In a restaurant I store mussels in a perforated tray over ice in the fridge, but never in ice – they will die. Throw away any that have cracked shells. If shells are open tap lightly, if the bivalve closes it is still alive. Otherwise it’s dead.
When ready to use, place mussels gently in a bucket of cold water for 30 minutes. This will help the little bivalves filter out some of the sand. If they are kept in fresh water for an extended time they will die. Under running water scrape and/or scrub off barnacles and remove beard (or byssus) by grabbing the brownish threads with fingertips and yanking back & forth and side to side down by the hinge. Place cleaned mussels into a separate bucket of cold water to continue filtration.
The byssus thread is edible, but sand likes to stick to it and it’s not exactly pleasant to chew – unless you like to eat hair. However, if a few go un-bearded, it’s not the end of the world.
Our bright orange wild mussels taste like Pescadero coast: robust, briney and beautiful. The salty mussel liquor quintuples the white wine I’ve used to steam them open. I’ve never seen so much bivalve liquor before! This I strain with cheesecloth and reserve for various recipes.
Prince Edward Island (PEI) mussels, which are found in most markets, can be steamed directly with other garnishes (Curry & cream? Fennel, saffron & white wine? Tomatoes & capers? Ginger, garlic, & lemongrass?) because they are not sandy and do not need to be strained. Most farmed mussels require just a rinse before using.
But the liquor of wild mussels will need to be strained or the sand left to sink to the bottom of the pot and carefully avoided. I prefer to strain it out but this means my sauce or broth will take extra effort to finish. Totally worth it.
We are taking the mussels to a pot luck party at Pie Ranch down the coast towards Santa Cruz. I opt for a true marinara sauce (a tomato sauce with seafood – as the name implies) for our offering. We cook up pasta, toss it with our rich tomato-caper-mussel sauce enhanced with white wine and mussel liquor, sprinkle chopped parsley over, and head out back along the coast to the barn dance and dinner.
Sun sinking. Sky, a burst of pink and mussel orange. Clouds streaked greyish purple against the flame colored backdrop. Salty sea air stinging noses and wind whipping hair everywhere, we hold on tight in Jeeps McGee.
It’s time to kick up our heels Pescadero style…