One of the biggest modern food myths is that eating shellfish carries one of the highest risks of contracting food poisoning. In fact, according to the 2011/2012 Annual Report from the Chief Scientist for the Food Standards Agency, you’re more likely to get food poisoning from chicken than from shellfish*. As well as being blessed in the west coast of Scotland with pure, plankton-rich waters for shellfish growing, the strict monitoring of shellfish production, set out by EU food law, means that you can tuck into a bowl of Scottish mussels without any worries about food safety. Of course it also helps that the mussels find themselves in the capable hands of the Crannog chefs! Read on to find out more about the mussel’s journey from loch to lunch.
Rope grown mussels
The mussel fertilisation process takes place naturally in the waters all around Scotland. Once formed, the microscopic mussels then latch on to any surface they can find and set about the business of eating and growing. Traditionally they would settle and grow on the seabed and on rocks, which resulted in a potentially gritty eating experience and poor quality meats. Mussel farming has changed that for the better.
Farmers hang ropes into the water from floats on the surface. The mussels settle on this rope as naturally as they would on the seabed. It may sound simple but mussel farmers have spent years researching and developing the perfect rope to give each and every mussel space to grow and reach its full, juicy, plump potential. For us, it would be like the difference between staying in a two-man tent on a soggy campsite, or a penthouse suite in a 5 star hotel. The result of giving mussels a more comfortable home to grow in is that you get fat, grit-free mussels, which are bursting with pure flavour.
From loch to lunch
The mussels aren’t given any artificial feed: they eat the plankton that occurs naturally in the water, so the growing method is no different from non-farmed mussels. The main risk of contracting illness from any food, including shellfish, comes from bacteria. This is most likely to enter the mussel meat through the consumed plankton. Consequently, the first stage in ensuring that the mussels that reach the restaurant are of the highest quality is the regular testing of the water that mussels grow in, thus also testing the quality of the plankton. Every harvesting mussel farm in Scotland is visited and tested weekly by a Shellfish Sampling Officer. This means that if there is even a slight risk of algal toxins (naturally occurring toxins found in plankton), the mussels don’t leave the farm. This gives peace of mind to the mussel farmer, chef and customer alike.
The safety net doesn’t end there though. The weekly tests are cumulatively assessed to give each harvesting area a seasonal classification which reflects the potential bacteria levels in the water. Where necessary, after the approved shellfish have been harvested, mussel farmers then perform a cleansing procedure called depuration. Water from the loch is passed under UV light to sterilise it; the farmers then use the purified water to recreate the loch environment in tanks which the mussels live and feed in for a minimum of 42 hours. This process was really brought in to protect consumers of raw shellfish, such as oysters, but has been widely applied to all shellfish. The result of this extra step is that you could essentially eat a raw Scottish mussel and be sure that it was free of bacteria; that being said we wouldn’t recommend it – they’re certainly much tastier after our chefs have finished with them!
As well as elevating the flavours of our succulent west coast mussels, the cooking process is the final nail in the coffin for any potential nasties that might try and find their way into your tummy. The most effective way to cook mussels thoroughly, whilst still maintaining their texture and taste, is steaming. Our customers’ favourite tends to be mussels cooked classically in white wine, garlic and cream, so we keep that on our main menu all year round; but we also like to provide some variety on our Specials Board. You might find them steamed with cider and tarragon, or served in a shellfish bisque with surf clams, whelks, razor clams or langoustines. Another favourite is our recipe for chilli and pancetta mussels; click here to try it yourself.
The hard work of the mussel growers, along with the optimum growing environment we have here in Scotland, result in truly delicious mussels that we are proud to serve at Crannog Restaurant in Fort William.
What’s your favourite way of eating mussels? Is there anything you’d like to see featured on our Specials Board? Leave a comment to let us know.
*29% of all reported cases from poultry meat, compared to just 21% from shellfish.