As they live near to shores, and so are easy to collect at low tide, mussels have always been eaten by humans. Apicius cooked them with leek, garum, and wine.
According to a legend dating back to the 13th century, we owe the invention of mussel farming to a shipwrecked Irishman in distress in the Bay of Aiguillon near La Rochelle. It seems that he planted stakes in the sea and stretched nets over them to catch birds in order to eat them. He saw that mussels covered his nets. He called this system "boat shoot", which was transformed into the word bouchot by locals. Another theory about the origin of this word is that it comes from the Celtic bout (closing) and chaos, which means wood.
Whatever the origin, bouchot mussels have been cultivated for centuries along the coast of the Atlantic. Farmers place their ropes in the water in spring (spawning time) to capture the young mussel larvae, which cling to the ropes and form a "spat". These ropes are then wound in spirals for the mussels to fatten up. Then, four months later, the "sleeves" covered with small mussels are moved to long rows of piles. They are harvested by hand a year later by boucholeurs, another name for mussel farmers in these regions.
Rope farming is done in much the same way. For mussels bred on plots, the mussel seeds are collected from natural mussel beds and deposited in the plot.
In North America, mussel farming only really took off in the 70s because mussels were not widely consumed before then. The industry has not stopped growing since.
China is the largest producer of mussels, followed by Spain.
The bouchot mussel, small and round, has a reputation for being the best. In France, those from the Bay of Mont Saint-Michel are protected by a PDO.
Mussels from Holland are larger and less tasty. They may contain sand.
Mussels from Bouzigues are bigger and very meaty, as are Spanish mussels, which are less tasty.
Farmed mussels have a black shiny shell, while wild mussel shells are encrusted with tiny shells and bits of algae.
Wherever they come from, mussels should always be bought alive and tightly closed. If the shell is slightly open, it should close immediately as soon as it is tapped. Mussels with broken shells must be discarded.
Fresh mussels are sold by the liter or by weight. They are sold in keepnets or bags or trays (which must include a veterinary inspection label), either just as they are, or declumped and washed.
Mussels are also sold frozen, either raw or cooked, on the half shell or unshelled, and canned in oil, brine, in various sauces, or smoked.
Before washing, it is good idea to plunge the mussels into a bowl of water: any that open or rise to the surface must be discarded.
Brush the mussels under the tap, and remove the byssus.
They can be opened quickly in a little white wine and chopped shallot. The mussels are gradually removed as they open, as their meat becomes rubbery if cooked for too long. The resulting juice is then strained.
Moules marinières is a classic dish, traditionally served with French fries in Belgium, the Netherlands, and northern France. When cream is added it becomes a mouclade, a specialty of western France.
In Spain, they are often found in paella and in pasta in Italy.
Mussels are added to fish chowder, omelet, and scrambled egg; they are cooked on skewers, or breaded and fried, and go well with Poulette sauce. If they are very large, they can easily be stuffed.
Fresh mussels are best consumed immediately because they are very fragile. Otherwise, they can be stored for an absolute maximum of 48 hours in the refrigerator or in a cold room at 4 °C in their keepnets or a tray covered with a damp cloth.
This is based on their date of packaging but also on their processing, harvesting, and washing: when a mussel is stripped of its byssus, it dies.
Like all shellfish, mussels are of great nutritional value.
They are full of minerals and are rich in vitamins and protein, but also contain a tiny amount of carbohydrates: this is what gives them their distinctive sweet flavor.
Fairly low in fat, they provide few calories, but contain Omega 3.
Mussels can sometimes trigger an allergic reaction.
Many mussel species exist, but the most common are:
. common mussel (Mytilus edulis), also known as the blue mussel, edible mussel, bouchot mussel, mussel from Brittany, mussel from Holland, and Atlantic mussel
It lives in the western Atlantic, the English Channel, the North Sea, the Baltic, and the Mediterranean. It is usually 1–10 cm long. The bluish-black shell, which is sometimes brown, is rough, and covered with very fine lines. This is the most commonly grown mussel everywhere.
. Mediterranean mussel, or Provence mussel, or Spanish mussel (Mytilus galloprovincialis)
It lives mainly in the Mediterranean but is found in other seas. Its shell is larger and more rounded.
. California mussel (Mytilus californianus)
It lives from Alaska to southern California and can grow up to 25 cm.
. Pacific mussel (Mytilus trossulus)
It is similar to the common mussel, but has a thinner and more fragile shell.
. Asian green mussel (Perna viridis)
It is native to seas in Asia and was introduced into the waters of North America and South America. Its light green shell turns browner and browner as it grows. It is usually 8–10 cm long.
Mussels are also classified according to farming method and origin:
. on bouchots, which are pilings planted at sea. This method is specific to France and its Atlantic coast. These produce smaller mussels, which are harvested from May through January.
. on ropes suspended vertically in the water from rafts or stretched between trays: this is the most frequent method used for mussels in the Mediterranean, such as those from Spain, and, in France, from Bouzigues.
. in plots that were originally natural, but which are regularly stocked up: in Europe, these are the mussels from Holland, which are mainly harvested in winter.
Wild mussels are also found everywhere in the world. In many countries, including France, their capture is regulated, or even prohibited, because of health risks.