Wild Mussel Soup

Ever since the strandlopers strolled down KZN beaches thousands of years ago, collecting, cooking and eating the shellfish they gathered from the rocks, wild mussels have been an integral part of the earliest South African cuisine. These days you need a licence which limits you to 40 mussels a day. Here’s just one of the wonderful things you can do with them.

To make wild mussel soup for two (main dish) or four (starter) you will need:

40 fresh KZN mussels (Perna perna)
1 500ml chicken stock
3 tablespoons butter
Big pinch of paprika
2 leeks
2 cloves garlic
4 spring onions
500ml white wine
Fresh parsley
2 cups heavy cream (optional)

Begin by cleaning the shells of the freshly caught mussels. Use a stiff wire brush or steel wool to remove the excess wildlife such as seaweed and barnacles. Wash under clean running water and reserve. Reject any partially open mussels. Finely chop the leeks, the white bits of the spring onions and the peeled garlic. Reserve the spring onion greens.

Melt the butter in a heavy-bottomed frying pan and bring the temperature up to medium. Fry the prepared leeks, garlic and spring onions, stirring carefully to prevent burning. When the vegetables have reduced to a pleasing pale mush, add the cleaned mussels in their shells, and the wine. Bring to the boil and then reduce at once to a slow simmer until the mussels open. Remove any that remain shut and throw them away.

Locate a large fine sieve and line with a clean thin cloth, preferably something like muslin. Collect and reserve the cooked mussels with a slotted spoon then pour the remaining liquid through the cloth-lined sieve. This piece of dramatic action removes the inevitable fragments of beach sand from the meal. Pour the sieved liquid into a large saucepan and add the 1 500ml chicken stock. Ideally make it fresh, or else use a high quality concentrate.

Take the cooked mussels out of their shells and pick off any self-evidently inedible bits like the so-called beard. Dump the shells and reserve the cooked mussels under cover. Now for the optional bit. If you like living dangerously and have no problem with cholesterol, pour in the optional cream.

Bring the soup in progress to the boil and allow it to reduce in volume by 25%. With or without the cream, adjust the seasoning of the liquid with freshly ground black pepper and maybe a little salt. Note that a small but meaningful fraction of the liquid is the seawater formerly retained by the live mussels, so additional salt may not be required.

Return the mussels to the pot, kill the heat and fit the lid. Let it stand for 10 minutes or so, which should be sufficient to heat the already cooked mussels right through. It’s very easy to over-cook mussels which then reduce in size and juiciness. Serve with a garnish of fresh spring onion slivers and torn fragments of parsley. A pinch of paprika in the centre of each bowl completes the presentation. Enjoy!