*Baja! Cooking on the Edge - Chosen by Food & Wine magazine as one of the year’s best cookbooks
By Deborah M. Schneider
Published: San Diego Union Tribune, May 2002
On the surface, your common mussel seems awfully
- well, common. Mussels are everywhere you look at the seashore:
clusters of salt-water wallflowers, shells tightly closed, rooted
in one spot for a lifetime, and apparently doing very little.
That very ordinariness makes it easy to overlook
what remarkable creatures mussels really are, lurking inside that
blue-black shell: hardy, prolific, successful--- and uncommonly
tasty. Clearly this is no ordinary bivalve, but an efficient and
opportunistic eating machine, which is both adaptable and tough
- in short, the perfect survivor.
The mussel starts life as a microscopic seed,
drifting through a few wild weeks of misspent youth before rooting
itself to the first solid object it finds: rock, weed, rope, boat
bottom or dock piling. Spinning silk-like threads called byssus,
which are almost as strong as steel, the infant mussel hangs on
grimly through low tides, pounding surf and blazing sun. For sheer
tenacity, the mussel is unmatched, but it also represents something
more than a stubborn will to live: it is a glimpse of the future
of our food supply.
As a professional chef, I'm one of those people
who sees the whole world in every grain of sand, and in my case
every plate of food. History, climate, tradition, environmental
health, air, farms and oceans are the strands that are tied up in
every bite of the food we eat, whether or not we are aware of it.
A simple bowl of steamed black mussels has much
to teach us. Plump and juicy, with coral-colored meat, and glossy
black, pearl-lined shells, mussels are certainly both beautiful
and delicious. But by their very nature, these simple animals also
embody the debate over huge issues that impact our current and future
food supply- issues of sustainable resources, food safety , clean
water and development of the land and sea that feed us, directly
It is ironic that just as seafood takes center
stage on menus all over the country, the world's fisheries are collapsing.
As oceans and their marine populations succumb to coastal pollution
and overfishing, sustainable aquaculture "farms" promise
us that the sea will indeed help to sustain life in the future;
analysts predict that by 2025, over half of our seafood will be
farm-raised, an increase of almost 200% over today.
Farmers whose 'fields' are acres of salt water
and who ride their ranges on jet skis and rubber dinghies are already
defining how and what we will eat in the century to come. These
farmers are growing salmon, striped bass, clams, abalone and oysters
as well as mussels, harvesting their hidden crops from lagoons and
off rafts, from nets and oil rig pilings, from France to South Africa,
from Newfoundland to Vancouver Island, and from Carlsbad to Baja
Mussels are among the oldest and most successful
of aquacultured foods due to their adaptability, quick growth and
extreme hardiness. First cultivated in France in the 13th century
by a resourceful Englishman, so the story goes, the mussel is the
original aquaculture success story.
Mussel cultivation represents aquaculture at its
best, producing up to 200 times as much edible protein per acre
as grazing land. Great Eastern Mussel Company in Maine harvests
up to 15,000 pounds of mussels per acre. The best grazing land produces
only 150 to 200 pounds of beef per acre. Mussels and other filter-feeders
such as oysters and clams eat naturally occurring plankton, which
they strain out of sea water, actually cleaning the water where
they grow. Mussels are also naturally low in fat, high in iron and
minerals, and have a third more protein than oysters.
That's a lot to wrap up in a tasty little package, but unfortunately,
not all forms of aquaculture are so (relatively) benign. Some forms
of aquaculture actually create pollution in previously pristine
areas; others, like salmon, require that wild fish be harvested
for feed, so the oceans are still being pressured. Farmed abalone,
which can sell for upwards of $30.00 per pound, is sometimes fed
on harvested wild kelp, disturbing a vitally important coastal ecosystem.
Mussels are successful because they offer great
eating at a reasonable price to the consumer. Domestic consumption
of mussels has doubled in the last five years as more and more Americans
discover that mussels are inexpensive, tasty, versatile and healthy,
but the mussel is vastly popular world-wide. For example Moules
et Frites, wine and shallot-steamed mussels with a side of fries,
are the national dish of Belgium; the French also like their mussels
steamed, sometimes reducing the juices and swirling in cream, butter
and drops of lemon juice to make a luscious sauce. Malaysian kapang
masak asam bathes succulent mussels in the tangy flavors of tamarind,
basil, lemongrass and chili peppers. Spanish baristas toss handfuls
of small mussels, only a few hours out of the water, onto a hot
griddle until they open and serve them with a squeeze of lemon,
crusty bread and a glass of sherry or light white wine.
Of 17 known varieties of mussel, the most prominent
cultivars are the so-called European mussel, mytilus edulis, and
m. galloprovincialis, or Mediterranean mussel, which are virtually
identical. Diners have also become familiar with the New Zealand
greenshell mussel (perna viridis), which is imported fresh and live,
or frozen on the half shell. Green mussels are impressively large,
but seem flabby and tasteless when compared to the smaller but sweet
and briny black mussel.
Our familiar local wild mussel, properly known
as m. californianus, grows in the chilly pounding surf line along
the rugged coast of California and Baja California. Undisturbed,
our native species can grow into lunkers -- huge specimens from
four to six inches in length are common, weighing in at five or
six to the pound.
Even though californianus is quite edible, you
should never eat wild mussels; they can harbor unseen fecal pathogens
from pollution, or worse, the deadly red tide bacteria which causes
nerve paralysis. It's impossible to tell an infected mussel from
a clean one. Buy only farmed mussels from a reputable retailer,
which have been lab-tested for cleanliness and safety.
One local grower, Carlsbad Aquafarms, is supervised
by no fewer then eleven local, state and federal agencies, which
ensures that the harvest is free of harmful pathogens; Carlsbad
also uses a unique system, called depuration, in which sterilized
and filtered water is used to purge the mussels over a 48 hour period,
ensuring their wholesomeness. Carlsbad Aquafarms deserves a special
look because they are pushing the possibilities of what can be done
with aquaculture in terms of species, growing techniques and food
CARLSBAD: URBAN EPICENTER
Carlsbad Aquafarms operates in the shadow
of the Carlsbad Power Plant's landmark 200 foot stack, which towers
over the north county coastline. The "farm's" offices
are unassuming: a trailer, a few outbuildings and a small floating
dock and a steep boat ramp, where workers in bright yellow hip waders
operate hand trucks and sorting machines. Long strings of white,
barrel-shaped buoys bob in the quiet waters of the Agua Hedionda
lagoon, which runs to the ocean under busy Carlsbad Boulevard. Half
a mile away the I-5 freeway roars day and night, and beyond that,
the hills are dotted with the homes of hundreds of thousands of
North County residents.
It seems an incongruous setting for farming anything,
but to John Davidson his aquafarm is a shining example of what the
future could hold if coastal waters were cleaned up and coastal
development limited to preserve lagoons and estuaries. His mission,
as he sees it, is to promote aquaculture as an alternative to strip-mining
the oceans, and in some way, to help restore the health of the coastal
waters in which he has been diving, boating and fishing for decades.
"When we promote high-quality aquaculture,
we're not just taking from the oceans," said Davidson. "You
have to balance growing, taking and giving back. The idea is to
stop taking from the ocean."
On a recent Tuesday afternoon, the only signs
of industry are a flat-bottomed boat with a small crane and a few
simple steel machines with hoppers and grates. The real action is
underwater. Strung between the buoys in the lagoon are sturdy ropes;
suspended from the ropes every 18 inches are eight-foot long nylon
mesh "socks ", ten thousand of them, each stuffed with
thousands of young mussels. Incredibly, from this quiet scene, Carlsbad
Aquafarms annually harvests three hundred thousand pounds of mussels,
along with oysters, clams, and Gacilaria seaweed.
Near the boat ramp, a large tank holds dozens
of short-spined purple sea urchins, a single prowling orange starfish
and four bulbous horned sea hares, their delicate spotted mantles
fluttering in the artificial current. This tank, and the others
lined up nearby , are operated by CARI, the Carlsbad Research Institute,
a nonprofit foundation whose mission is to work with desirable marine
species to determine which are suited for aquacultural development.
The sea hares, prized by the pharmaceutical industry, are one such
species; another is the rock scallop, a sweet prize forbidden to
commercial harvesters in this country. Gacilaria seaweed whirls
around in a series of large open tanks; known in Hawaii as limu
or ogo, this seaweed , usually harvested wild, is used extensively
in Hawaii as an ingredient in Ahi Poke, a popular appetizer of raw
tuna mixed with the seaweed, ginger and sesame.
In a small tank nearby lolls a pregnant (male)
Australian sea horse, tail wrapped around a strand of seaweed. This
species is losing its native habitat as well being captured for
use in aquariums. CARI researchers are studying its commercial viability.
The way Davidson sees it, each species - from
sea urchins to sea horses -- is currently being harvested from the
wild for use as food, in research, or as pets in aquariums. If they
could be raised in captivity, wild species could rebound and prosper.
If coastal waters were free of pollution and preserved from over-use,
ancient fisheries and ecosystems could begin to rebuild.
Mussels point the way to a more responsible future.
They take little from the environment; feeding on what is naturally
present in the water. In return mussels filter the water and leave
it cleaner; each mussel efficiently filters 10 to 15 gallons of
water every 24 hours, removing almost everything from it; multiply
that by a hundred thousand mussels, and you can appreciate their
awesome impact on lagoon water quality, which benefits everything
that shares the waters.
Even the low-tech growing method has positive
side effects. The long clusters of growing tubes effectively create
an artificial reef, which acts as a nursery and safe haven for the
juvenile stage of many plants and animals such as tiny scallops,
fish, lobsters and sponges, giving shelter and protection from predators.
Kneeling on the dock, Davidson pulled up one of the nylon growing
tubes to demonstrate. The mussels encased in the nylon netting were
small, only a couple of inches at most, but the exterior was already
encrusted with small sponges and underwater plants. Inside, tiny
scallops and other, less easily identifiable animals lived among
the baby mussels. As we examined the growing tube, something small,
and in a big hurry - probably a crab- detached itself from the sock
and jumped back into the water with a loud "plop."
Each cultivated mussel begins its life as a microscopic
larva, which begins to grow its cilia hairs at five days old. The
larva are collected and grown in a special netting to protect them
from predators, then moved into long tubes of nylon netting to grow.
Several times during their life spans they are pulled up by a crane,
dumped into a hopper and sorted through grates. If they fall through
the grates, they are re-wrapped in a nylon tube and returned to
the lagoon to continue to feed on the plankton-rich waters, and
grow. Depending on water temperature and food availability, mussels
mature to market size in 18 to 36 months - about three inches in
It's time for graduation. The mussels are peeled
out of the growing tube for the last time,hosed off, shoveled into
shallow black plastic trays and pulled up the hill to the purging
and packing shed -- a sort of last-stop spa for bivalves.
In a small outbuilding beside the sheds, a rolling
steel door ratchets up to reveal the heart of the operation - a
system of seawater pumps and white PVC piping which funnel the lagoon
waters through a series of filters and then through a UV irradiation
system, which kills all microbes in the water. While the mussels
recover from the shock of harvest, they are bathed in the filtered,
sterilized seawater for 44 hours , flushing out any silt or bacteria
they may accumulated during their days in the lagoon and replacing
it with the purified water. This purification system, called depuration,
is unique to Carlsbad Aquafarms in the world of myticulture. It
virtually guarantees a product that is free of bacteria, pathogens
and microbes. Afterwards the purified water returns to the lagoon,
cleaner than when it came in; the mussels are packed into mesh bags,
tagged with the growers name and date of harvest as required by
law, packed in shaved ice and shipped all over the country.
Aquaculture in this country is highly regulated, but surprisingly,
although a third of all our seafood is imported, little of it is
inspected on entry. How then, will we have guarantees that the food
we eat is responsibly grown or harvested, and safe to eat?
Assuring the future of our food supply from the
sea will certainly challenge our many of our habits and expectations.
What are, we, the consuming society, willing to give up to save
a species or an environment? We know so little, yet take so much
without understanding the consequences.
It's a sure bet that we will need practical solutions
to many pressing questions, and we will need them very soon. It's
reassuring to hope that an ancient art and an unassuming( but very
successful) animal may have some of those answers- today.
Deborah M. Schneider,CEC is Executive
Chef at Hilton La Jolla Torrey Pines
JAMES BEARD FOUNDATION AWARD