First things first: shellfish taste simply amazing. Salty and sweet, like the very best desserts, slightly iodine and delicately bitter, of sea and beach and magnificent rocks, of wind and space, adventure and sunset.
The advanced shellfish connoisseur enjoys them raw, preferably freshly lifted from the sea or cut from the stone - never will their intrinsic flavour be stronger, deeper or more complex.
Cooked, they enchant with other charms; they become silky, creamy and soft, milder and rounder in flavour. Strong, short heat lends fine smoky aromas to razor clams, for example, while a little steam makes mussels really plump and juicy.
Twin Win: a Source of Protein and Umami
There are two simple reasons why shellfish taste so delicious. Firstly, they are one of our oldest food sources ever. Many tens of thousands of years ago they were one of the most important sources of protein for our ancestors, presumably in part because they couldn’t run away.
Archaeologists regularly find prehistoric piles of mussel shells several metres high which bear witness to prehistoric seafood orgies. Secondly, they are by nature the epitome of umami, which in Japanese means ‘the essence of deliciousness’.
Umami is now acknowledged to be the fifth taste that our tongues can taste, along with sweet, bitter, sour and salty. To protect themselves against the salt of the seawater and to store energy, they store a lot of amino acids, including glutamate, which is the amino acid that makes our mouth water. Glutamate is umami and shellfish are inherently full of it: the saltier the water, the stronger the taste of umami and the shellfish.
Both Healthy and Delicious
Coastal dwellers all over the world have always known about the flavour potential of shellfish; southern Italians rarely fail to throw a few clams into their soups and fish stews, and the Chinese make XO sauce, one of the world's great seasonings, from dried scallops, fish and shrimp.
Shellfish are also enjoyed steamed, boiled, fried, grilled or just simply raw with a dash of lemon. An increased consumption of shellfish would suit everyone, provided they are fished sustainably, as they are not only delicious, but also extremely healthy. Shellfish, like oily fish such as mackerel and salmon, contain high levels of good omega-3 fatty acids - mussels and oysters in particular, contain as much as omega-3 as wild salmon.
However, their advantage is that they are easier to farm in a sustainable and environmentally friendly way. So much so that eating farmed oysters and mussels could actively improve our environment and some scientists see them as the future of our diet.
Impressive Eco Balance
Mussels and other bivalves are filter feeders; they feed on plankton and algae that they filter out of the water: unlike farmed salmon they do not need to be fed. In addition mussel farms are not threatened by diseases and so antibiotics are not needed.
Their eco-balance is so impressive that Jennifer Jacquet, professor of environmental studies at New York University, writes, "Bivalves may not just be the best option in the ocean, but the best choice if one chooses to eat animals. Period."
Ocean activist and fisheries expert Paul Greenberg, author of the best-selling Four Fish says, "Because things like cattle farming really put a huge strain on our resources, we're never going to get to the point where everyone can eat beef." I do believe, however, that we could get to the point where everyone could eat shellfish."
Mussels filter up to 15 litres of water a day, oysters up to 200 litres. This not only makes them plump and delicious, but it also purifies the water.
In areas where too much nitrate and phosphorus get into the sea from intensive agriculture and over-fertilisation (the experts call this eutrophication), mussel farms are now being established to clear the water of excessive nutrients which would otherwise result in large algae blooms and consequently dwindling fish populations due to the lack of oxygen.
Moreover, mussel beds provide a habitat for numerous other small creatures that settle on and under their shells.
Most Sustainable Choice
Unlike large fish such as tuna and swordfish, mussels also store virtually no mercury, while other shellfish such as clams store very little. The Marine Conservation Society (MCS) gives farmed mussels, rock oysters and manila clams their highest rating of "Best Choice” for sustainable farming.
Nevertheless, it is always good to know where the mussels on your plate come from because they are in season at different times of the year.
There’s an old adage about only eating shellfish when there’s an ‘r’ in the month. Despite modern cold chains and fast transport systems, this is still sound advice.
Shellfish are at their finest in the cool clear waters of winter. Warmer weather not only brings the danger of water-borne bacteria but also the obvious one of seafood spoiling if left on a counter before service.
Summer is also breeding time when the females release eggs and the males release sperm and the mussels no longer taste as good or as luscious.
The Only Downside
As filter feeders, bivalves potentially ingest everything that drifts through the sea - including micro-plastics, so it is important that they are cultivated where the water quality is suitable.
Generally, the shellfish that come onto market are regularly checked, "In the USA, Europe and also in large parts of Asia, there are strict protocols and tests for both water and shellfish that are amazingly effective," says Gary Wikfors, who researches the potential of shellfish for the US government. "In the developed world, I eat raw seafood without hesitation."
Shellfish are widely available can be sustainably farmed, so don’t hesitate…there are many delicious ways to cook them, two of our favourite ways are below.