I think it’s a sign of age that I’m finding it increasingly difficult dealing with the darkness at this time of year.
Whilst my eyesight’s still, according to my optician, better than it should be at my age, I find the commutes to and from work in the gloom a real strain on the eyes.
All those headlights! Similarly, the wander out to the bins in almost pitch darkness has taken on assault-course status, as I trip over plant pots and step in puddles (it’s a walk I often perform barefoot or in socks because I’m a lazy bloke).
And because we spend much of our working time indoors, Tracy and I feel like we don’t see daylight for much of the time during the winter months.
So, inevitably, my culinary mind wanders to summer, those days when the sun’s up long before you are, and seems reluctant to disappear at the end of the day.
And one such sunny daydream brought me to today’s recipe, a little fresh Mediterranean seafood classic that will add a little sparkle to the dinner table as the gloom presses in at the windows. I thought back to my summer holiday down in the Languedoc.
One day, we decided to head south, towards the Spanish border, ostensibly to visit the famous Caves Byrrh in the picturesque town of Thuir, not far from Perpignan. It’s a wonderful winery where they make the eponymous fortified tonic wine, as well as Martini Rosso and Dubonnet.
I’d wanted to see the famous barrel they have there which holds over a million litres, and I was not disappointed – it’s very impressive indeed, and the whole tour is extremely informative and well-run. Worth the detour if you’re in the area.
As it was a gorgeous late summer day, the sun still agreeably warm in the clear blue skies, we decided to head to the coast to find a bite to eat for lunch, and wound up in the charming port of St Cyprien-Plage.
It’s definitely a summer holiday place, suggested by the swathes of camp sites and caravan parking one drives through to get to the sea, but in September the town is going down the gears, in preparation for the winter, when, like many northern Mediterranean resorts, everything pretty much shuts down for a well-earned break.
We found a few restaurants still open around the small marina, and browsed the pavement-side menus – I love restaurants like these, with a large, appetising bill of fare right there at the roadside, tables full of chatty people enjoying their lunches, and bustling staff. We selected a good-looking place called l’Aquarium, and enjoyed a delightful fishy lunch with a bottle of crisp rosé, basking in the warmth and enjoying watching life go by.
It turned out to be my last al fresco meal of 2016, and still makes me smile fondly when I think of how lovely it all was. One dish that we tried was a simple but delicious plate of gratinéed mussels, a local speciality, using plump, fresh mussels picked in the local lagoons.
Once quickly cooked in white wine, they are topped with ferociously garlic-y aïoli sauce and covered with fine breadcrumbs before being grilled to crunchy-topped perfection. I’d wanted to make my own since then, and thought they’d make a nice, cheerful appetiser for the New Year period, adding a little Mediterranean warmth to proceedings.
For this dish I used the big New Zealand greenlip mussels, which are terrific, but any large mussels will do. Just ask your friendly neighbourhood fishmonger.
Feel free to add any herbs or spices you fancy, too. A hit of chili might be just the ticket!
And finally, may I just take this opportunity to wish you all a very Happy New Year. See you in 2017!
For the mussels:
6 large mussels per person
Dry white wine
For the aïoli:
2 free-range egg yolks
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 tbsp Dijon mustard
150ml extra-virgin olive oil
150ml grapeseed oil
A little fresh lemon juice
2 thick slices white bread, whizzed into crumbs
A little chopped parsley
Freshly-ground black pepper
Good salad leaves
First, let’s make the aïoli;
Put the yolks, mustard and garlic in the bowl of a food processor. Turn on to constant speed. Mix the two oils in a jug with a spout, ideally a spout that works properly. Gently pour the oil into the egg mixture in a very thin stream. It should begin to thicken and become pale in colour.
If it gets too thick, add a splash of lemon juice and continue with the thin stream of oil until it’s all incorporated. You should have a thick, wobbly emulsion. Add salt to taste – it will be strongly garlic-flavoured, but the harshness will fade slowly, and you’re after a strong sauce anyway. Set to one side until required.
Clean the mussels, discarding any that won’t close when fiddled with. In a wide pan (ideally you want the mussels in one even layer) heat a good few glasses of white wine with a pinch of salt.
When the wine is boiling, reduce the heat and tip in the mussels. Cover with a lid or plate and cook for 2-3 minutes, then remove from the heat and allow to steam a little longer before draining.
Set the mussels on a baking sheet. Pipe or spoon a little aïoli over each mussel, and add a pinch of parsley and a grind of pepper. Spoon over a generous helping of breadcrumbs.
Grill the mussels until the breadcrumbs are a lovely deep golden colour. Alternatively, you can bake them in the oven, with the heat up as far as it will go.
Serve the mussels immediately with a crisp, well-dressed salad, some good bread and a glass of crisp white or rosé wine, and let the sunshine just course through you.