French mussels make waves at summer festivals14-08-2018
Every summer, food events and festivals up and down the French coast celebrate all things mussel.
In France, spending summer at the seaside is a rich and rewarding experience to see first-hand how the French like to spend their holidays. Every year, the French descend in their droves on the North Sea, the English Channel, the Atlantic Ocean and even the French Med to soak up the beaches and attractions in the seaside resorts. And the fact that the French coast is such a buzzy, happening place, with activities and entertainment galore, is one of the reasons why the French, not to mention a growing number of their European counterparts – including the Dutch, Belgians, Germans, Swedes and Danes – simply love to be beside the sea. And there’s celebrations on 14th July to mark Bastille Day, 15th August (Assumption), and a whole host of events devoted to sardines, tuna, oysters and mussels. The Fete de la Moule, or mussel festival, has been an institution in towns up and down the coast for more than 30 years and during this time has become the go-to event to guarantee a successful summer. It is now a popular attraction drawing crowds in their thousands.
Focus on the Fete de la Moule
In a nutshell, (or mussel shell!) imagine dozens of regions along the French coast organising events to celebrate everything mussel, lasting an evening, a weekend, or sometimes even two. A packed programme of entertainment includes mussel sampling a go-go, but more importantly, vast banquets organised by local associations offering mussel menus galore. The French can’t get enough of it, especially when on holiday. And that’s not all. Before, during and after the feasting, the entertainment in its many different guises kicks in. Think concerts, dance displays including samba, traditional Breton and salsa, children’s games and even street parades. Wimereux, near Boulogne-sur-Mer in Northern France, is a typical example, where every year the mussel festival parade flaunts a different theme. In southern France, towards Carro, near Martigues, a petanque tournament marks the occasion, complete with the obligatory glass of pastis never too far from arm’s reach (to be consumed in moderation of course).
Moules-frites – a dish to draw the crowds
During this major festival held in July or August depending on which part of the coast you happen to be, or even every month if you happen to be in Tharon-plage in the Vendee, mussels take on a starring role in a number of different recipes, of which the most famous is moules-frites, or mussels and chips. Originating in northern France, this speciality consists of mussels served warm with home-made chips, (that’s real, hand-cut potatoes), and a dash of local flavour. The most popular recipe goes by the name of Moules Marinieres, where mussels bathe in a fusion of melted, lightly salted butter, white wine, finely-chopped shallots, parsley and a hint of pepper. They can also be served, depending on the location and local restaurant, with fresh cream, beer, tomato, olive oil, fine herbs, peppers, spice and even cheese for the most discerning. Finally, in the south, mussels feature in paella, while in Sete, in the Med, locals prefer them stuffed with meat and topped with a tomato sauce. Another local tradition is brasucade, where mussels are cooked until they “pop” in a large frying pan over an open fire made from vine ceps, for a distinctive smoky character, before being doused in a dash of olive oil and good quality, local white wine, such as a Picpoul de Pinet. During celebrations in Carro, Martigues, tourists travel from miles around to watch this local delicacy in the making and of course partake in the eating.
The Grande Braderie de Lille fleamarket and a new wave of mussel catchers
One town in France not located along the coast, but that still pays homage to the mussel every year, is Lille in northern France, with its famous supersized flea market extraordinaire. During the event, restaurant doorways overflow with discarded mussel shells, and revellers manage to put away an impressive 500 tonnes of the molluscs. The event attracts visitors from all over the world, and this year takes place 1-2 September, with an original twist. Local start-up Etnisi, known for their firm adherence to a circular economy, collect the empty mussel shells and re-use them to make floor tiles. It takes between 3-5 kg of shells to make a rectangular tile, which with its shape and colour bears a striking resemblance to the white tiles of old found in the Paris metro.