When I left you last, I was contemplating a problem – my journey down the beach at Whiskey Run was progressing nicely, until this mass of rocks appeared in front of me – there seemed only two options, if one wished to go any further – I could try driving on the edge of the incoming low tide wave edge – but then one must always remember that we’d like to retrace our path when it’s time to leave – and with an incoming tide, our escape may simply disappear!
The second option is that I can, if I wish, simply try to drive over these outcroppings -at least the less formidable ones- with my 4 wheel drive. Hummm …
But I have good news, my friends – we needn’t worry over either of these options, for these are the very rocks of our quest and we needn’t go any further. The rocks we seek are just out of view to the left in the picture above. Let’s go find a good one and begin our harvest.
Here’s a good candidate. Nice big rock – with a good population of mussels – they don’t show all that well in this photo, but the top half of the biggest rock is nicely filled out with mussels – that shows that this rock is actually covered by sea water at high tide. Mussels are ‘filter feeders‘, and they must spend the majority of the day under water, so they can eat. But as you can see, unless we don’t mind getting our feet wet -and we do- this rock is not so good! The wave action ‘digs’ out the sand from around the base of most of these rocks, thereby making for a wet access at low tide – in mid-summer, this is not a problem – today it is.
Not far away, we find this one – and it has all we’ve been looking for – it’s loaded with mussels, and it’s got a dry access too. Let’s go see what they look like up close.
Oh wow. There are even more mussels here than I thought – they’re really packed in here! The mussels are of course the darker, blue black colored ones – but what are the whiter things? Let’s go even closer.
Now we can see more clearly that these mussels are jammed in so close to one another that it’s hard to believe that they can actually function – but that is the way of mussels. What you can’t see is that they are packed in on top of one another, layer upon layer upon layer! It’s probably a foot or more deep with mussels. But how do the ones on the bottom survive? I really don’t know – but they do. And the amazing thing is that the really big ones are on the bottom, since they were the first ones here.
These are wild California mussels, Mytilus californianus, not the more familiar cultivated variety one buys at the fish market. Yes, the taste is different, in much the same way the taste of wild boar differs from a farm raised pig, or wild duck from domestic duck.
Oh yeah – what are the white things? Those are barnacles, thatched or Balanus barnacles to be specific – and they attach themselves to the shell of the mussel, just as they attach themselves to the hulls of ships all over the world – Yup, the same guys. But there’s even more going on here – let’s look more closely – look up at the upper right corner of this photo, and you’ll see a few very different looking creatures – let’s get a better look.
Oh wow – believe it or not, these are barnacles too. But very different looking, huh? These are called, Gooseneck Barnacles, I guess because someone thought they looked a bit like geese – or at least a goose’s neck. They have a quite fantastical history in Europe, which is told here – and have a cult following as one of Europe’s most favored seafood delights. On our shores, few know they are even edible, much less a delicacy. I myself need to extend my harvesting efforts to include more of the barnacle family, for I have sampled many kinds and have found them all -including the common thatched variety- to be quite delicious and worthy of more attention.
I’ve always thought these creatures had a medieval aura about them – looking much like the gargoyle like sculptures that adorned buildings in those days – and this one looks as if he’s got his eye on us, and the bigger one looks as if he’s ready to pounce, lest we invade his space. Actually, this is a completely harmless creature. The plates of armor on the top of the Gooseneck barnacle open at high tide, to allow his feathery legs to extend out to find plankton and sweep it back into his waiting mouth inside.
OK, let’s get back to our mussels – how does one go about harvesting mussels? – certainly we have an abundance of riches before us here, but how do we begin? I think your first few attempts to extract a mussel from its bed may suggest that a small stick of dynamite or a crowbar may be very helpful. These mussels are extremely well secured within their bed – they secrete a thin brown, but amazingly strong thread called a byssus. The characteristics of the mussel’s byssal threads have fascinated the science world for a long time, and they are hard at work trying their best to synthesize it for commercial use. But for us, it is simply a challenge, for which a sturdy glove is an absolute necessity – without a glove, you will only manage to dislodge maybe a half dozen from their lair, before the rough exterior of the shells begin to tear your hands up.
My process is to probe between the shells until I find a mussel that is not quite as secure as the others – that means it may be a bit easier to remove than the others. I look for smaller mussels about an inch and a half to two inches in length – any larger and the texture of the meat begins to be drier and tougher – I also look for mussels that are a bit cleaner of encrustment than others, although I suspect that the greater the number of barnacles on my mussels, the tastier will be my resulting broth – but I admit that it is difficult not to consider a clean mussel a better mussel. I do not work away at one area for a large number of mussels, although this is admittedly an easier extraction method. However, to take this approach is to weaken the area you work in to the extent that future wave action could very well tear much of the colony away from its secure hold. Much better to take only a few mussels from each area in which you find them. I additionally only take my mussels from the upper reaches of their mass because I’m convinced -from experience- that those on the bottom have more chance to contain large amounts of sand.
In Oregon, collecting mussels requires a shellfish license ($7), and the daily limit is 72 mussels – I don’t really count them as I’m picking, but I know when my bucket gets about half full, I’m close. Today it only took me about a half hour to reach my half bucket full – and since I’m not even close to the water’s edge (it’s a really low tide!), I have no idea if the tide is coming in or still going out – doesn’t matter.
Let’s get these babies back to the kitchen, so we can begin to process them for future use – mussels begin to degrade quickly, so it’s good to not dawdle. In my next post, I’ll explain how I process mussels, and I’ll share my favorite and very simple dish to enjoy their unique qualities.
One last look at this beach in its overcast mystic beauty.