If you've been fortunate to visit France or Belgium and eaten moules mariniere – mussels steamed in butter and herbs with a cream sauce – you've had a real seafood lovers' treat.
But one thing most Kiwis notice is the difference between the little black mussels you get in Europe and our gigantic (by comparison) green-lipped mussels. I had steamed mussels with some French visitors at a seafood place in Auckland a little while back. They emitted cries of delight at the sight, smell and taste of "our" molluscs when they arrived at the table. They wrapped the empty shells in napkins to take home to show people the amazing size of our Kiwi mussels.
Mussels are called kutai or kuku in Māori, its scientific Latin name is perna canaliculus while most of us know it as the humble mussel – green-lipped mussel to be specific. All my life it has been a staple item of our whānau diet and as a young boy, gathering kutai was an early lesson in kai moana gathering for me.
At least once every summer our extended whānau would set up camp at Little Waihi's Bledisloe Park at Maketu and stay there for weeks, mostly living off the sea. Pipi, titiko, flounder and eels from the estuary, tuatua from the ocean beach and snorkelling for kutai, paua, kina and the odd crayfish from the rocky shore below the Maketu cliffs. The offshore fishing was like visiting the whānau larder taking kahawai and snapper and the occasional kingfish. Those of us able to get our hands on my Dad's speargun could pick up the odd blue moki and now and then a marari or butterfish.
Those were the days when some of the Maketu people, mostly older women, gathered agar seaweed which they spread on dry sandy patches below the cliffs to dry. Boy, did you get a telling off if you were clumsy enough to walk over their carefully laid-out harvest. I remember being amazed to learn that the seaweed was used in the manufacture of icecream.
I have one fond memory of waking up in our camp tent to the smell of fresh pipi fritters being cooked for breakfast on the Primus stove by one of my aunts. Going outside the tent I could see across the channel a group of our whānau on a sand bank gathering more pipi. They suddenly started shouting and it was then I noticed the dorsal fin of a shark circling the ever-decreasing sand bank as the tide came in. Eventually the shark (probably a harmless dogfish hunting for pipi like they were) moved off and they quickly waded back across the channel with much splashing and laughing.
The demise of the harvesting of wild mussels came in the 1960s. It was sure to happen. In the Firth of Thames for example, harvesting was carried out using destructive dredging techniques that literally obliterated the sea floor so that the mussel and scallop beds could not recover.
A new approach had to be found. From the early 1970s, this led to the birth of serious aquaculture in this country with the establishment of mussel farming based around Coromandel. This was quickly followed by farms in the Marlborough Sounds and more latterly in some of the sheltered bays of Banks Peninsula.
Here in the Bay of Plenty mussel farms have been established offshore from Opotiki. There are now more than 600 mussel farms around the country and in 2012 they produced 34,000 tonnes of mussels with a value of just under $200 million. In 2017, this had risen to $348 million with $40 million coming from the domestic market and the rest from export. The expansion of mussel exports has also been accompanied by the development of new products such as mussel oil which is said to be a potent source of Omega-3 – a powerful anti-inflammatory.
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Mussel farming followed a typical Kiwi pattern of adaptation and improvement. A Japanese method of farming oysters was tweaked to set up the bulk mussel farming systems that have become the industry standard. These farms consist of a series of long-lines - where a main rope is supported by buoys - from which "dropper" lines, that have been seeded with mussel spat, are suspended. Mussels being filter feeders thrive in an environment where currents and tides bring them the phytoplanktons that they feed on. From spat to harvestable size – around 10cm in shell length – takes about 18 months.
I'm familiar with mussel harvesting on the Coromandel and in the Marlborough Sounds which both share the same techniques. Harvesting is undertaken by specialist barges that winch the droppers on board and strip the mussels from the ropes. The marine detritus from the harvesting activity works like burley in attracting fish – snapper mostly – which explains why fishing down current from a harvesting barge gives almost instant results.
This is clearly linked to the mussel farms also serving as a nursery for young fish who are protected under the farms from the trawling activities taking place further out in open water. Not so from recreational fishermen who flock to the Coromandel in their thousands. I can't believe that a fisherman would tow his expensive boat all the way from Auckland just to catch the bag limit of seven fish.
Even with the protection of the farms I don't believe the snapper fishery can sustain the weekend recreational fishing annihilation of the fishing stocks. I'm a big fan for recreational marine fishing licences covering rod and line, nets and spearfishing activities. The revenue generated from licensing to be used to fund stock replacement fish breeding programmes. Current research into fin fish farming, such as that being undertaken at the Plant and Food Research facility in Nelson, produces excess juvenile fish for ocean release. One breeding fish can apparently produce enough offspring to satisfy the facility's research requirements so breeding more for release is easily achievable.
Back to mussel harvesting where once the shellfish are barged ashore a pretty flash distribution system swings into action. Within a day the fresh molluscs can be available in supermarkets all over the country and elsewhere. I have eaten "next day" mussels purchased at the Sydney Fish Market. I was also fortunate to be part of a Māori trade delegation that, to the delight of the diners, served up fresh Marlborough mussels complemented with a decent sauvignon blanc, at a hotel in Milan.
Our humble mussels deserve an international reputation. As in Europe, they are cheap and easily available and can be easily adapted to make a breakfast dish (fritters), lunch or dinner (steamed or chowder), grilled on the half-shell with a grated cheese chopped tomato and coriander topping; or as a salad with sliced onions in vinegar; or fermented with puha.
My favourite chowder recipe has 2kg of mussels steamed open, shells and beards discarded, and chopped into bite size pieces. Peel and cube three medium-sized potatoes and two large carrots and chop a large onion and a large stick of celery. Put the potatoes and carrots on to par boil.
In a large pot melt 100g of butter and add the onion and celery and fry quickly until soft; sprinkle generously with salt and black pepper add another 50g butter and then quarter cup plain flour, keep stirring the flour until the butter has been absorbed before adding three cups of warm milk to make a roux sauce. Drain and add the potatoes and carrot; add the chopped mussels mix well and then stir in three cups of cream – keep stirring to avoid sticking and bring to the boil. Remove from heat and serve in individual bowls sprinkled with chopped chives or parsley. Serve with hot fry bread or ciabatta buns. Yum.