The catch: New Zealand green-lipped mussels

With the cooler months upon us, it’s time to consider those traditional winter dishes – like seafood pasta, fish pie and seafood chowder. And with everyone watching food costs, I’m reminded about the fat, plump mussels from New Zealand’s North Island.

These top-quality and exceptionally good value mussels are grown off the Coromandel Peninsula, where the steep green hills plunge into the cold, clean waters, fed by the East Auckland Current flowing through the South Sea.

The mussels, known as green-lipped mussels, are highly regarded around the world for their subtle flavour and tender texture. They start life in the wild waters – where the mussels spawn and their spat settle naturally on seaweed. Some of this is washed ashore on New Zealand’s rugged 90 Mile Beach. Here, teams of foragers collect the kelp and seagrass. This is processed and wrapped around thick nylon rope and secured in place with a fine, biodegradable continuous cotton sock.

The mussels naturally attach themselves to the rope with their byssal threads – filaments chefs call ‘the beard’. The ropes hang in the water column below the surface, suspended by anchored buoys. The mussels are thinned throughout their 10 to 20-month growing period until there are about 70 mussels growing per 30cm. They are filter feeders, eating microscopic phytoplankton. The mussel farmers take note of the water conditions and make sure they don’t overpopulate the water; otherwise, there will not be enough food to let the mussels grow and fatten.

When the mussels are around 85mm long, which is a decent size for mussels, they are hauled onto boats and stripped from the ropes. They are tumbled to remove any tiny barnacles and seaweed that naturally grows on the shell, de-bearded, washed and graded.

To capture the full flavour and maintain optimum quality, the mussels are processed immediately. Blanched in near boiling water, while still hot they’re opened by hand, and the top shell is removed and discarded. Getting the temperature down rapidly is essential, so they are quickly refreshed and within minutes they are in a blast freezer. Before packing, the mussels are sprayed with pure water to give them an ice coating (or glaze) which protects them from freezer burn.

Some of the meat from the mussels is removed from the shell prior to refreshing. This then goes through the same freezing and glazing process and is sold as cleaned mussel meat.

The beauty of New Zealand green-lipped mussels – apart from the quality and affordability – is their versatility. They thaw in the fridge overnight and are ready to use in many ways. As a canapé, they can be laid flat on a tray coated with seasoned breadcrumbs and grilled for six to eight minutes and sent out hot. The half shell fits beautifully in the mouth and the mussels make a meaty little morsel. They are also perfect for Asian dishes such as Thai seafood curry. The shell itself adds bulk and volume to the dish and signals to the diner the authenticity of the seafood.

The same can be said for Italian dishes that call for fresh, plump mussels like linguine con cozze – with flat pasta holding a simple sauce of tomato, garlic, anchovies and olive oil, in which sits mussels on the half shell. It’s a visually beautiful dish, with low food costs, that is not complete without a glass of white wine.

Then there is the classic Sicilian zuppa di pesce – an aromatic bowl of inexpensive cuts of fish, a few prawns, small clams and mussels sitting in a broth redolent of fennel, cinnamon, juniper and Cinzano Bianco. It’s served with torn basil and a basket of fresh crusty bread to mop up the soup. Diners are encouraged to pick up the shells and suck the delicious mussel meat straight off the shell.

The green-lipped mussel meat can be soused in wine, spices and vinegar for the classic Spanish bar snack mussels in escabeche. You can even lay them on a wire rack and smoke over beech or hickory for house-made smoked mussels to punctuate a complex seafood platter dish – or serve with other morsels as a canapé.

When you consider the size, taste, texture, price and convenience of New Zealand green-lipped mussels, they really are a sensible choice.


Brett Patience

Bidfood seafood expert

Read the recipe here.

As seen in winter 2024

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