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I do like to be beside the seaside

Such is my lack of inspiration at the moment I am today combining two of my writer's block stimuli - a moment in time and a lucky dip.

I thought it was time to change my computer desktop picture and so I changed it from the lovely girls at Dame Nellie Melba's to this shot that my husband took, way back in 2010 in the Cinque Terre region of Italy. It's a shot taken along the Via dell'Amore - Lover's walk - at the spot where all those lovers have left a padlock - a bit of A loves B graffiti. But the reason I chose it for today's blog is not the padlocks, or the rather lovely statue, but the sea sparkling in the sunlight through the rails. Somehow it's just so evocative of the sea. Plus the distant horizon of course.

I have always lived near the sea - well nobody in England is far from the sea, and here in Australia almost all of us live in one of the coastal cities. Plus my grandmother lived in Portsmouth - Royal Navy town - which we visited often. So I do love the sea, but ironically I don't particularly love swimming in it or sailing on it. Even as a child I preferred to spend my time on the beach during our Devon seaside holidays, crouched by the rock pools searching for little creatures within, and also searching for shells on the shore. The sea itself is much too alarming - and generally too cold. Besides I am a very poor swimmer, so its frightening too. But I love the smell of the salty water, the sound of the waves as they break on the sand with a soft swishing sound, or the louder clatter of the shingle on English beaches, and the blue horizon that beckons.

The seaside is also a fun place. People are mostly happy there. Well superficially anyway. My other seaside memories from childhood are of Southend-on-Sea - a misnomer as it's really on the Thames estuary. A vulgar place I suppose where the poor of London would go for a day out. We would go to the 'lights' - a time of year when there would be garish light displays all along the esplanade. We loved it. It was magic to we small children and we would buy some Southend rock and cockles and whelks - and chips. Which brings me to my lucky dip - Moules marinières from Penguin Cordon Bleu Cookery.

It's a book I used a fair bit I think. It certainly looks pretty battered, although not as much as my Elizabeth David and Robert Carrier collection. But that might just be a matter of the binding. And I know I've done something on Cordon Bleu and the book's authors before, so today I'm just using the recipe I picked - Moules marinières as the starting point for a ramble.

Which brings me back to the seaside, because you can be guaranteed of seeing everywhere at the French seaside, chalked on virtually every beachside café, Moules et frites. It's the French equivalent of fish and chips even though there is actually a really good case for the Belgians as originating the dish. Whoever invented it, it is truly the everyman dish at the seaside and I think the mussels themselves are probably cooked in the manner of Moules marinières - with wine, parsley, shallots and garlic.

You can, of course, get Moules marinières anywhere, not just at the seaside, but it is certainly something, that I, in particular associate with the seaside. In fact I first ate mussels in France, at the seaside in Normandy. My exchange partner and I had just made an extremely rough Channel crossing from Newhaven in England to Dieppe, where we were met by her parents. We had been sick all the way of the at least four hour crossing, so were not feeling too bright on arrival. The idea was to have a couple of days on the coast, so I think we travelled to Fécamp a little further along the coast to stay. And there we ate, by the sea, mussels. Well now I think about it, maybe I didn't. My hostess certainly did though. With gusto. But I had never had them and was a bit of a coward when it came to large shellfish. Happy to eat cockles and whelks but not mussels. Besides it looked too hard. The trick is to eat with an empty shell. And here I pause to insert a long quote from Nigel Slater on eating Moules et frites, although not at the seaside - actually in Brussels. I'm inserting it because it is so evocative and I could certainly not write about the same thing as well, so I'm not even going to try.

"It isn't just the exquisite whiff of seafood steamed in their own juices with a little finely chopped onion, parsley and white wine that appeals, it is the whole art of eating moules marinières. Forks and knives don't get a look in. Correct etiquette or not, I so love using the pincer action of a pair of empty mussel shells to extract the rest from theirs. Sure, your fingers smell a bit dodgy afterwards, but you feel so ingenious dispensing with the need for cutlery. Until, of course, you have to beg for a spoon to scoop up that sweet liquor from the bowl, and in which you always find the odd stray shellfish lurking.

I take the lid off the pot. This time it is made of blue enamel. A great cloud of herby steam wafts up; the mussels are piled there, shells agape; the sweet nuggets of orangey-beige flesh seem to be grinning at me. There is a white bowl at my elbow with thin, deliciously sharp mayonnaise in it, and a bowl of thin, rustling fries in the middle of the table. There's wine in the carafe, a copy of a Belgian magazine for me to pretend to read and 50 or more soon-to-be-empty mussel shells to pile into an absurdly fragile pyramid. I am still wet, still homesick, but at least I'm not lonely any more."

We also had our own Belgian connection, although at the French seaside port of Agde. One night we dined in a small local restaurant which consisted of one long table at which one was sat in order of arrival. We sat next to some Belgians, who did not speak English, so David had to practice his French - which gave him an enormous sense of satisfaction. He speaks of it still as one of the most memorable evenings of his life - although I do not think he ate the mussels that we were served. I did, although I had not mastered the pincer thing. But I had tried mussels by then - many years after my initial introduction in Normandy and on the other side of the world at Muir's restaurant in Hobart. We were there on one of David's business trips and with a group of his colleagues. One of them insisted that I had the mussels. So I did. And he was right - they were delicious. I actually once tried to cook them at a cooking class I went to in the city - but I stuffed it up so much the teacher/chef sort of shouted at me. Well it was his fault he didn't really clearly tell me when to stop cooking them and just left me to it. So I have never tried again - and why would I anyway? David doesn't like them, and actually I don't really like to think of the whole process as you cook them whilst they are still alive.

Anyway Moules marinières. Here are some pretty pictures of them: on the left Felicity Cloake's perfect version; then Elizabeth David's and on the right Luke Nguyen's - from his trip to France, and one of the recipes with which he doesn't meddle. It's a pretty straight version.

Elizabeth David actually has three versions. Here is the simplest:

"Perhaps the most usual way of cooking Moules marinières is simply to put the mussels into the pan with the white wine but no water, throw chopped parsley and onion or garlic over them as they are opening and serve as soon as they are all open."

Well I guess it doesn't get much easier than that.

As I say, I do not think I am going to be cooking mussels ever, or eating them very often either. They are, however, one of the foods from the sea which it is alright to eat from an ecological point of view because they are mostly farmed - grown on ropes dangling down from lines strung across bays. And if they are not dredged up - thus disturbing the sea floor - then all is well. The New Zealand green lipped mussels that we saw everywhere when we were there are enormous. I don't know whether that means they are good or not.


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