Tuesday, 25 September 2012

A crisis at the harvest festival

Last weekend I went over to Ireland to do a couple of demos at Waterford Harvest, one of the country's biggest street and food fairs. I even had time to make a quick appearance on Irish breakfast telly to talk about the festival on the Friday morning before my Friday night demo. All was good. The demo was fun - as it was outside the beer tent. Once the washing up was done I was escorted to Waterford's best bar, Geoff's, for a few pints. I spent the day on Saturday with Sally McKenna, who writes and publishes the Bridgestone Guide to Ireland. She took me kayaking to look for seaweed on a gorgeous loch not far from Skibereen. It was a wonderful day and I felt like a young apprentice in the presence of such great experience and knowledge.

However things started to worry me when I woke up on Sunday morning.
I was due to cook mussels during my demo yet in the back of my mind I remembered that they had been picked up on Friday and were in the hotel fridge waiting for me. It was a worry. I went to check them and spoke to the chef at the hotel. We tapped them and they closed, but not fast enough for my liking. The chef said "I wouldn't" so I decided it wasn't worth the risk. I called the festival organisers who got on the phone straight away to try to raise the fishmonger to get more. No good. So now I either had to do domething else or I had a crisis on my hands.

I almost always cook mussels on my demos because they are the food that got me started. They embody my food aspirations and the 'get out there and get it' spirit. They are easy to find, simple to prepare and require very little cooking. And if you pick them yourself they will be about as fresh as any food you could ever hope to find. Plus, at this time of year they are back on the menu after the breeding season (when there is no 'r' in the month, whether you believe the wives' tale or not) and will be at their best. So just about spot on for harvest. Besides, I like talking about them.

Anyway, I had a vague recollection of a conversation on Friday night in Geoff's when a drinking companion told me about the mussels at Dunmore East, a fishing village near Waterford. It's the place where I got married so know it well. I decided to head off in the van and  go searching. It was 12 o'clock by this time and I had to be on at 2, so not much time to spare. At least the tide was on my side - low at 1300. I got to Dunmore East and went to the harbour where I met a couple of fishermen who told me that the best mussels grow out at Woodstown, a little further up the estuary. It's where the oyster beds are. "Just walk out to the beds and you'll see the mussels growing on the pilings. They might be a bit small but the flesh is lovely," they said, "But don't hang about. The tide will be moving soon." "Sounds good," I thought to myself, "Oysters mean clean water, means good mussels."

What the fishermen failed to tell me is that the oyster beds are about half a mile out in the estuary and that to get to them you need to cross the mud flats. I got so far and had to turn back. The mud was just too deep. Then I noticed some rocks in the bay and trudged over to them, where, to my delight, I found some small mussels. I grabbed a handful and headed, very muddied, back to the van. It was half past one by this time so I had to dash back to Waterford. Thankfully it was raining and my demo was put back by half an hour. Just enough time to clean and scrub the mussels and let them soak.

I was worried that they might be a ltitle gritty but I smoked them during the demo and they were delicicous - just as the fishermen had promised. And of course, with mud-caked boots and trousers I had a great story to tell. It was proof that the mussels were about as fresh as they could ever be. Sometimes people can be a bit reticent about trying them but not this time. When I offered them to the crowd gathered around the van they were gone in moments.

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