My early memories of eating mussels mostly involve waiting for low tide and pulling them from the rocks with my parents or friends. Big, small, didn’t really matter, we steamed them all in beer or on occasion my mom or grandma would make a big pot of spaghetti with mussels. My first experience with cultured mussels was not until I worked in local restaurants in my teens. Those bags of clean, polished mussels looked like gemstones compared to what I was used to. The sound of those mussel shells clanking into the steam pot has been burned into my long term memory after one particularly hot summer in a local kitchen.
These days cultured mussels from Prince Edward Island are pretty standard fare, at least in our local restaurants. At this point, there is also brand recognition among seafood lovers for PEI mussels. However, the last time I got PEI mussels in a restaurant – which was a pandemic ago – the meats were so tiny it was a bit disappointing. I’m sure I’m not the only mussel fan that has been dismayed at paying for a bowl of shells.
Recently I was contacted by a sales rep for Pemaquid Mussel Farms, a Maine company that specializes in cultured, rope-grown mussels. When the rep mentioned they produce a product known for a very high meat-to-shell ratio, I was intrigued. The Company sent me a two pound bag of live mussels, and another package of frozen mussel meat to sample and help spread the word about their high quality shellfish.
About Pemaquid Mussel Farms
Founded by Carter Newell in 2007, Pemaquid Mussel Farms grows high-quality, rope cultured blue mussels (Mytilus edulis) along the coast of Maine using sustainable and innovative aquaculture techniques. The owner-operated company has a small, dedicated staff that is actively expanding operations to a million pounds per year.
Pemaquid Mussels start off as naturally occuring mussel larvae that attach to special “culture ropes” during the summer. After a few months of growth, the mussels are sorted by size before being prepared for the growing stage. Pemaquid Mussels are sustainably grown on ropes hanging from patented 60 ton submersible rafts, which keeps the mussels both off the ocean floor and away from hungry sea ducks. The submerged rafts do not interfere with other water related activities, are not visual eyesores on the landscape, and are not impacted by storms or winter ice.
The ropes hang the mussels between 75-100 feet deep, allowing the mussels to filter a maximum amount of plankton from the water column. Combine this with the cold, clean waters of coastal Maine and you have a recipe for the highest meat yields of any mussels in the United States…in only 16-24 months!
Pemaquid Mussel Farms uses a process-at-sea method which leads to grit-free mussels with an excellent shelf life. Immediately after removal from the ropes, the mussels go through the process of declumping, debyssing (beard removal), and grading.
Pemaquid Mussels are then purged in pristine seawater that is maintained at the same temperature they lived in, which greatly reduces stress and increases shelf life no matter the season. Pemaquid Mussels are then bagged, tagged and iced before same-day distribution at their HACCP certified facility in Bucksport, Maine. This new distribution center can handle 3000 pounds of mussels per hour.
Supporting Maine Coastal Communities
Close to my heart is the fate of our domestic fishing communities and the working waterfronts that support them. There is very little coastline left in Maine dedicated to marine industry and so I support any organization that is committed to keeping these communities commercially viable for the people. Pemaquid Mussel Farms scores high in my book for their commitment to Bucksport, Maine. Their distribution center is providing vital jobs in the face of a local paper mill closure.
Seafood jobs are good jobs, trust me, my town of Gloucester is full of people who rose through the ranks of the seafood industry. Seafood jobs also have a proven multiplier effect on the communities they operate in – rising tides do indeed, float all boats. There is no doubt that the industry is changing and former Maine commercial fishermen have been hired by Pemaquid Mussel Farms to work the seafarms. Also, a percentage of Pemaquid Mussel Farms’ proceeds go the Fair Food Fund to help build sustainable food systems. Sounds like a classy organization all around.
About My Pemaquid Mussels
I decided the focus on the live mussels and save the bag of frozen mussel meat for another time. The sale rep suggested deep frying them, like fried clams. I can’t believe I’ve never tried a fried mussel, but that will have to wait until some warmer weather. So here is what I found when I opened the bag of live Pemaquid Mussels.
I have to say these are some lively mussels! After the harvesting process I just mentioned and the trip to a distributor in Boston, the mussels spent a day and a half in my fridge. That cold seawater purging and stress-free handling really works, as these mussels were spreading new byssus and attaching to one another. There were a couple of beards I had to remove by hand, which is common, but I only had to discard two mussels out of two pounds because they were crushed.
First impression before cooking was that I like the size and uniformity of the mussels. Before cooking, these lively mussels were open enough to get an idea of the meat content, before they quickly shut closed. It’s been a while since I picked my own mussels at low tide, but I don’t recall them being this responsive, possibly due to the fact these mussels are grown in ideal conditions and don’t have to deal with sitting on the hard for a few hours each day.
I then had to decide how to prepare the mussels. Steamed in beer or wine was a given, but just how involved was the question. I decided on a variation of that French classic that I remember enjoying with my wife in our all too short travel through France: Moules Marinière.
The Recipe: Buying Seafood’s Moules Marinière
Fairly simple, hardly a recipe, but then when I looked up a few suggestions online I found there were many variations of Moules Marinière. My version takes a bit from various things I’ve read and watched, but in the end it’s about the mussels, and if you have excellent shellfish to work with, any variation on the theme should come out delicious. Garlic, white wine, fresh parsley and mussels – From there it’s all yours to play with!
You could just throw it all together in the pot and turn the heat to high and they would come out fine. What I did was softened the shallot and garlic in half the butter. Then I put the wine in and when it begins to boil put in the mussels and cover. It’s good to shake the pan a couple of times, and in about 5 minutes they were done. I took the mussels out of the pot and put the rest of the butter, lemon juice, and zest back on the heat to melt down. Then I dumped in the herbs and mussels and gave them a good stir to mix. Only thing left was to sit down with a bowlful of steamed Pemaquid Mussels and some toasted baguette pieces to sop up the broth.
The Verdict: How Were Pemaquid Mussels?
These mussels were some of the meatiest mussels I’ve ever seen, cultured or otherwise. The meat to shell ratio was incredible, showing that these bivalves are eating very well before harvesting. Even the smaller shells were completely stuffed with light orange mussel meat. Some were a little too big for my wife so she stuck to the smaller ones, but in either case they were tender and had a clean, mild flavor.
A pot of steamed Pemaquid cultured mussels is certainly hearty enough to serve as an entree like we did. However due to their meatiness and mild flavor these mussels would be perfect for a paella, spaghetti con cozze, and most definitely my father-in-law’s famous stuffed mussels.
I’m very happy to have tried these delicious mussels, raised responsibly right here in New England. A big thank you to Carter Newell, Peter Fisher and the team at Pemaquid Mussel Farms. If you would like to try Pemaquid mussels for yourself, or find out if they are available in your area, check out their website or contact Sales Manager Peter Fisher