Mussel linguine

To suggest some elements of the UK mussel industry had a challenging summer would be something of an understatement. Unusually long periods of very warm weather across the whole country took a serious toll on availability, quality and consistency with some devastating effects. Over 100 incidents of shellfish poisoning were reported across the South of England in the second and third weeks of July and large scale restrictions were put into place, with many harvesting areas closed for nearly 2 months. So what caused this unusual occurrence? For me, three key areas are of relevance:

The science

The believed cause of the poisoning incidents were biotoxins inherent within some variant algal blooms (red tides) which were created by the elongated, and somewhat unusual, periods of sunlight across mussel harvesting areas of Scotland. Unlike bacterial loading, which is treated via depuration tanks, there is no option to cleanse shellfish from biotoxin contamination. Additionally, shellfish poisoning caused by biotoxins can be fatal.

The weather

With much of the Scottish industry closed throughout August and September chefs became reliant upon alternative harvesting areas – Wales, Devon, Dorset, Italy – but this was not a successful solution. The extremely warm air temperatures played havoc with mussels and dead ratios were higher than ever seen. Contrary to popular belief mussels do not live out of water so once harvested they are fighting for their life. Keeping them cool and damps help prolong the shelf life but 30 degree air temperatures are far too much for such a delicate creature to cope with. Rope grown (suspension) varieties suffered the worst; their requirement to protect against predators is low so the need for a strong abductor muscle to keep their shell closed is of lesser importance. They gape quickly then die. Conversely, seabed-grown mussels are much stronger and have a much heavier, thicker shell, but can be very dirty and can have extreme marine growth making them unattractive to the diner and difficult for the chef. The result – huge complaints by everybody buying and eating mussels

The season

The reliance upon food twelve months of the year and the evolving away from utilising or even understanding natural seasons now seems normal. If you want samphire in December it will come from Mexico. It’s ok; it tastes alright, it’s a bit expensive, but it won’t kill you. Importantly this summer has shown that eating certain foods out of season could actually be a serious issue. As everyone strives for cheap food and restaurants require higher GPs to survive such menu offerings as mussels – cheap to buy and easy to sell – can be a hugely attractive option. I’ve been in seafood for 20 years; I don’t eat mussels in the summer. There is a reason for a season.

Click through to see Jamie’s great seafood recipes.


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