spicy mussels in white wine and garlic

Writing about food is challenging. How, for example, would you describe a peach to someone who’d never seen or tasted one?

It’s so hard to find the language to explain the sumptuousness of a peach – a fuzzy-coated, sweetly fragrant, summer fruit whose ripe, soft flesh yields to the mouth, whose sweet juices run down your hands and face as you bite in. A peach smells of sunshine and honey and the summer wind.  In size, it is like a cross between an apple and an orange – sporting a warm soft, pale orange sweater-coat, kissed with shades of pink. In texture – it is more akin to a plum. Peaches tastes like nectar, like honey, like flowers, like summer itself.

But no matter what words you find – no matter how florid the description – a peach is a peach. Nothing but eating one actually does it justice.

Because I’m writing a manuscript about food at the moment, I’m thinking of food all the time. I’m thinking about what constitutes good food writing. The most intense writing I remember about food comes not from a cookbook or food book but from Lorna Doone, a novel by English writer Richard Blackmore, published in 1869. It is set in Devon and Somerset and prominently features Exmoor, a place where once, long ago, I spent a Christmas holiday in an old B&B that dated back to the Domesday Book.

Lorna Doone is a romance novel set amongst the moors. But for me – it was a book about hunger and desire. About highwaymen and treachery. About love. About larders stocked with ale and platters of cooked sausages and chops.  The entire time I was reading Lorna Doone – I was hungry. I wanted to walk into an old English home in the moors and raid the pantry. I wanted to eat great plates of meat and potatoes washed down by ale. I wanted to hear the thunder of horses hooves on the moors and feel the damp, cold seeping into corners while I huddled in front of the fire. The crazy thing is that I scarcely eat meat and I rarely drink beer and I live in a home with central heating. Blackmore’s evocative language transported me to a different world. That is the power of really good writing.

How then to explain these mussels?

Last summer, I holidayed on Whidbey Island, off the Pacific Northwest Coast. It was one of those places where I felt I could stay forever. I’ve had that feeling in other places – in Yorkshire – my ancestral home. In super rugged Tasmania, Australia where I stood entirely alone on a beach tens of kilometres long with the nearest landfall was thousands upon thousands of nautical miles away. I had that feeling in Queensland and in the South of France. And in Devon where Lorna Doone is set. But I especially had it on Whidbey Island where the grasses rolled into the sea and the boats in the harbour beyond fished for mussels and ling. In one direction – the mighty Pacific Ocean that covers one-third of the earth’s surface. In the other – the rugged mountains of the West Coast. One night I sat in a fabulous old biker bar with a sea view – eating seafood plucked from the Sound just beyond the window only hours before. It was a meal I’ll never forget. I had a glass of Oregon white. I had a bowl of mussels and a basket of grilled bread. And while I ate, the sun went down over the Sound.

These mussels – they taste of the sea. Of wind and waves. Of garlic. Of white wine. They are delicate. Slightly chewy yet tender. An edge of heat. The garlicky, white wine broth is perfect mopped up with a grilled baguette.

I love that this meal – and this beautiful place –  is seared into my memory.

Spicy Mussels in Garlic and White Wine

  • Servings: 3-4 for a main, 4-6 for appetizers
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  •  2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 3-4 large cloves garlic, chopped finely (but not minced)
  • 1 teaspoon dried crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • ground black pepper
  • 1 1/2 cups dry white wine – I used Sauvignon Blanc
  • 2 lemons, quartered
  • 1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley
  • 3 pounds fresh mussels, scrubbed and debearded


    Place the oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add the garlic, red pepper flakes and salt. Cook for one minute. Then pour in the wine and bring to the boil. Add mussels, half the parsley and half the lemon.  Cover pot and cook until mussel shells open, stirring once, about 6 minutes; discard any mussels that do not open.

    Using a slotted spoon, transfer mussels to a large shallow bowl. Boil broth in a pot until reduced to 1 cup, about 3 minutes; season, to taste, with pepper. Pour broth over mussels. Serve with remaining parsley and lemon slices and a sliced grilled or toasted baguette.


23 thoughts on “spicy mussels in white wine and garlic

  1. Wonderful words, as always, Lindy. I especially enjoyed your description of a peach.
    I love mussels and could eat them any time. I love the texture, the flavorful sauces, and the ritual: scooping out the flesh using an empty shell both as a “tong” and a “spoon” for the juices. In Northern France, mussels are almost sacred, we serve them with many different sauces (my favorite is a creamy sauce using white wine and a local stinky cheese called Maroilles), but I have never tasted a garlic version yet. Sounds delicious!

    1. Darya – THANK YOU – such a lovely compliment.
      I made mussels once with a friend on her oceanfront property on Prince Edward Island. We bought ten pounds from the mussel farm and cooked them in a pot over the fire. Dumped in an entire bottle of white and then at the end poured in some cream and added cheese. They were amazing – a little like what you just described above I imagine. Big fan of stinky cheese! 😉

      1. Every year, in Lille, we have a huge street fair-garage sale… and the tradition is to eat mussels and fries (moules-frites) – it is the 1st weekend of September, the beginning of mussel season. Last year, instead of shopping at the fair, I spent the day at a friend’s restaurant, cooking mussels, and frying potatoes. I had the time of my life! Each restaurant then piles up the mussel shells, and the one with the biggest pile gets a prize 😀

      2. Darya – I just looked Lille up. I’ve never been to your part of France but it so close to Ghent – and Ghent is already on my bucket list. I want to go and see the Ghent Altarpiece. Lille looks absolutely beautiful. Now I cannot wait to see the place. Je suis un francophile!

  2. I want to eat those mussels, your description is so vivid and detailed I could almost taste them. I also would love to visit Whidbey Island, it sounds like a spot I would love. I must make the mussels.

      1. Suzanne – new format jumbled up my replies. And now I am sorting them out! Whidbey Island is such a treasure. We flew into Vancouver – rented a car and drove down the coast to Portland then came back up the coast island hopping – it was an amazing adventure. Twilight country! Huge trees, huge mountains, huge beaches, heavy fog that suddenly lifts and the views are magnificent. Whidbey Island is a place where time has stood its ground a little – and I loved it for that.

  3. Oh my goodness Lindy. Your description of a peach is fantastic. If I had 1/2 of your writing abilities I would be a very happy person. We hare headed to Whidbey Island this week for a wedding. I remember when you were there, Where is this biker bar you speak of? And here you made mussels! I have never in my life cooked up mussels. I wouldn’t even know what to do with them. Scrubbed, ok, I can do that. But debearded? I didn’t even know mussels had beards!

  4. Seana – thank you for the best compliment ever. I’m so excited that you’re heading to Whidbey. The biker bar – Toby’s Tavern in Coupeville. In business since 1890! http://www.tobysuds.com/.
    I bought my mussels cleaned and de-bearded but there is a great video here on how to clean, prepare, and de-beard mussels.
    Enjoy your time on Whidbey! What a fantastic place for a wedding. Enjoy every minute. xo

    1. Aw – what a fabulous thing to say. you know – I always feel a bit badly posting non-vegetarian dishes. I have meat/fish guilt so really – I’m so happy that someone else feels like me – these are the stuff of my food dreams too. 😉

  5. Why am I not eating these right now! This looks amazing (as usual). I can’t wait to try these – perhaps we can whip them up when I am home in Sept!!

  6. I only enjoy mussels when I travel, because I can’t buy them in Oklahoma! But that’s also why I’ve never had the pleasure of making them myself. I’m a little jealous! Great recipe!

  7. Wow.. You’re good. More than good. Gooder. Goodest. 😉 The best.
    You are such a talented writer….I hope you know that.
    You make me want to go to those places, to that biker bar for mussels, a glass of Oregon white, and grilled bread. This is a beautiful post. And a delicious recipe. I haven’t had mussels since the beginning of June! I need to fix that this weekend with this delicious recipe, a loaf of crusty bread, and a bottle of white. It is now a perfect weekend reserved. ❤

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