Foraging for Mussels on the Cornish coast

Foraging on the coast turns any trip to the beach into a hunting and gathering adventure. There’s something very grounding about entering into the prehistoric ritual of gathering up your own food and cooking it over a fire on the beach.

Theres nothing I love more than slow food al fresco with those that I love. If you're looking for an entry level into coastal food foraging, mussels is where it's at. They're easily identifiable, plentiful, and absolutely delicious.

Cornwall is a great place to go foraging for Mussels, particularly the North Coast. The combination of rocky, deep, clean beaches and strong ocean currants that flush pollutants out to sea, means that mussels are one of the most sustainable fish source in Cornwall. That said, it’s best not to harvest mussels in the months with no ‘R’ in them (May - August) as this is their breeding season and we want to give them a chance to pop out some babies before we gobble them up. September to April you can fill your boots. 

If you’re looking to get some mussels for yourself there’s a few things you need to be aware of first

1. Check the beach that you’re on has at least a ‘Good’ ranking of water quality. Avoid beaches with rivers/ streams running into them and if surrounded by farm land avoid after heavy rain. My Mussels where collected 30 seconds from my front door on South Fistral beach in Newquay, this beach has ‘Excellent’ water quality so they're safe to eat. The easiest and most up to date way to test the water quality of your beach is to visit www.goodbeachguide.co.uk and type in your location or postcode for a full break down of the area. 

2. When collecting mussels the biggest ones are those that are rarely out of the water. In September and October, when the water is at its warmest, you can take a snorkel mask and dive down to the rocks that aren't exposed at low tide and grab yourself some big juicy molluscs. The rest of the year, a pair of welly boots and a spring or low tide is all your need to get the big ones down in the shore break. You can check tide times at www.tidetimes.org.uk or you can usually buy a little tide book from newsagents in coastal towns. Theres also a million apps for tide times that you can check out. 

3. If any of the mussels you collect are open make sure you give them a little tap with a rock. If they don’t clam up immediately, leave them there, they're dead. Make sure all the mussels have unbroken shells and are firmly closed before you cart them home. 

4. Be sure to only collect mussels around 5cm long. Any smaller and they haven't developed enough flavour, any bigger and they become quite rubbery. Also, the bigger ones have had more time to breed. 

5. Try collecting mussels a little further up the rocks rather than the ones right down at the bottom near the sand. The top ones tend to have less grain in them. 

6. Last but not least, the golden rule of foraging. Only take what you need

I collected about 100 Mussels which I figured would be enough for Leigh and I to have a decent sized portion each. I threw them all in a bucket and filled it with some clean sea water (not sandy shore break) and carried them along the beach home. 

Once home, I poured the mussels into the sink and filled the bucket with fresh cold water topped up with a little salt. I began to clean the mussels of their barnacles and beard (the fibrous strings that attaches them to the rocks). Personally I use a small pair of nail scissors to cut off the beard and then I use the blade of the scissors to scrape off the barnacles. I found this to be the quickest way of cleaning them but I'm not going to lie and say that this is a quick process. It took me about 30mins (maybe a little longer) to clean 100 mussels. But hey, do we really need more fast food in this world? 

Once I'd cleaned the mussels I dropped them in the fresh salted water and left them to purge for a couple of hours. As they are filter feeders they suck in the clean water and purge out the sand and grit that's held in their shells. 

Once they'd purged for a few hours I tipped the mussels into a shopping bag and headed down to my favourite picnic spot right by my house. 

I pulled into the Crantock beach car park and was suddenly reminded that it was winter, only 4 cars stood in the car park and a couple of surfers carrying their boards up the sand dunes. I grabbed my bag and stove out of the boot and headed into the dunes to my favourite spot. 

Sand dunes provide great shelter for outdoor cooking and picnics. The grass means theres not as much swirling sand flying about and even on the windiest of days you can usually find a gully to tuck up into thats' sheltered and feels almost tropical. I once took a book down to the Gannel and fell asleep in the dunes. It was on one of the coldest windiest days (Northerly wind) but i'd managed to find a little slice of heaven in the sun. I ended up burnt to a crisp when I woke up a couple of hours later, I certainly learnt my lesson. 

My stove is super simple. I have a few of these, all different brands, and they all work just as well. We have one in the car and one in the back of Leighs van and it means that were ready to go wherever we are. Sometimes it's just to make cup of tea after a surf but sometimes we rustle up a storm on those things. They're only a tenner and you can get them everywhere. The gas cartridges are easily installed and you can pick up multi packs of 5 for about a tenner if you shop around. Pro Tip: Always have a spare canister handy. We've had more than one meal ruined by running out of gas mid way through a meal being cooked. Running out of gas is what turns a perfectly awesome picnic into a perfectly horrendous 'shitnic'. You've been warned!

For my mussels I went for the bog standard Moules Marinieres recipe. When I cook I'm kinda like Jamie Oliver (A worse version of), in that I just bung everything in a pan and don't really think about measurements. I just gage what looks about right and hope for the best. It usually works out ok. In this case I put a knob of butter, 1/2 white onion finely sliced, and couple of crushed garlic cloves into a pan and allowed them to soften with the lid on. I then threw in the mussels, some fresh thyme, a little bottle of wine (roughly one glass) and then covered until they began to open. I topped it off with a bit of cream and put the lid back on to heat it all through. Then served. 

I appreciate not everyone is like me and some prefer a recipe to follow so i've included some links here 

Rick Stein Moules Marinieres

Nathan Outlaw Mussels with Sage, Cider and clotted cream

I served my mussels in a big bowl with a roll of chunky bread and ate them whilst I watched the tide come in and fill the Gannel. 

This is the easiest and funnest meal to prepare whether you're camping and in need of sustenance or whether you just want something to do with the children. 

I'd love to know you're favourite picnic spots around Cornwall or any stories you have to tell about foraging for your own mussels. Comment below, I'd love to hear from you. 

Love Hails x

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