Mussels in Brussels–Moules Frites
If you think of mussels merely as shellfish in a bucket, a gastronomic tour of Belgium will convince you otherwise. I arrived in Brussels ten months ago unimpressed with the bivalve mollusk. Back in the States, I avoided ordering the dish. I wrinkled my nose at what looked like nothing more than a pile of dark blue shells sitting in a puddle of lukewarm water. Why would I eat that? Looks like more work than it’s worth. I couldn’t possibly fill up on the tiny, rubber-like morsels that stuck to the shell. What about the gritty pieces of sand?
But then we moved to #Brussels. I thought I’d give mussels a shot. Why not? The food known as moules frites is after all, the national dish of Belgium. I consider myself a brave adventurer when it comes to sampling cuisine. How many people would eat squirming baby eel served with a fried egg over hashed potatoes in Barcelona?
Was I in for a surprise. The mussels or moules are prepared in steam pots shaped like buckets. The secret and flavor are in the broth–marinara, white wine, pernod, beer, etc. One restaurant that has quickly become a favorite, Le Chou de Bruxelles, has thirty preparations. My particular favorite is called Moules du Chef, a mix of leeks, celery, onions added to cream, white wine, garlic with just a hint of ginger. We’ve taken many visitors to this restaurant that plays Jacques Brel as they serve up buckets of moules and cones of home cut frites.
The bucket arrives at your table, lid in place. Escaping vapors carry irresistible scents of herbs, wine and garlic. Et Voila, your server removes the cover with a flourish. Placed beside the steam pot, the lid becomes an efficient receptacle for the discarded shell. A wave of steam rises to your nose. You close your eyes to focus on your sense of smell overwhelmed by a punch of flavor.
Then you dig in. Slowly at first, pulling plump, pink morsels from the shell. Love at first bite. The pace quickens, interrupted by an occasional pomme frite (never French fries in Belgium). Pommes frites in Belgium are exquisite, a golden yellow crispness that adds texture to your dining adventure and a new flavor dimension.
You take a deep breath. The lid fills with empty shells, yet the bucket seems as full as when you started. And still, the juices that fan delectable smells are out of reach. The spoon plunges downward between moules yet to be tasted, in search of broth. But your spoon comes up empty. A frite is is your best option. Spearing down into the broth, the crispy tip absorbs the refined goodness, whetting your appetite for more.
Your pace quickens as you fall into a satisfying rhythm, a percussion of fork against shell, shell against lid and other shells. Sips of chablis, sauvignon blanc or a pinot noir fill your mouth with another pop of flavor. Don’t be surprised if you emit a spontaneous sigh.
And you continue. Slowly, the pile of used shells grows. You reach the broth. The flavorful liquid, soaked up by amazing fresh bread is your reward for persistence. Other treasures may yet be discovered. Steamed vegetables and the best surprise, a renegade moule, dislodged from its shell and swimming in the broth, luxuriating in the juice. Heaven. After trawling for other moules, and a final slurp of the spoon, you’re finished. You can’t believe you ate that enormous bucket, emptied the cone of pommes frites and tore off a sizable piece of bread. Yet the mound of dark shells serves as inscrutable evidence of your deed.
You swear off #moules frites…at least until the next time the opportunity presents itself. Besides, dessert awaits…creme brûlée, dame blanche, gateau au poire, profiteroles, etc…..
Now you understand how 1.6 million tons of moules can be consumed every year. But none as delectable as those served up in #Belgium.