BEIRUT: It happens every time. Whenever Helene Geara, the owner of the recently established Moules et Frites in Ashrafieh, unveils freshly steamed mussels from the cocotte they were boiled in, the room is instantly enlivened – “ohh” and “ahh” her customers say, as if it were a magic trick. Geara opened her restaurant a mere three months ago and business, she says, has been booming since. The assumption that mussels are a seasonal winter item is mistaken, she adds, and her restaurant is living proof.
“We felt that moules et frites is really missing in Lebanon, especially because it’s only done during a specific season in Lebanon, typically when it’s cold,” she says.
Wild mussels are available at any point during the year, though they exist in larger quantity and better quality during certain seasons, she says. It is believed that September to December are the ideal months to harvest mussels, “because people think mussels are good for cooking during this time,” she says.
“But in fact, you can find wild mussels from the end of July [when it gets cold in Europe].”
Mussel season depends on where you live. In Lebanon, restaurants ship in mussels for once-a-week specials, typically from January to February, but Geara believes that one can have good quality mussels for at least nine months.
But there is a financial factor behind the seasonality trend in Lebanon; mussels are usually cheaper and more abundant during the first three months of the year and therefore can be sold at a competitive price.
Geara says fresh mussels are less expensive than farm-raised ones. The restaurant imports mussels from various countries, depending on the season, with New Zealand as the top supplier.
“We have good mussels in Lebanese sea too,” Geara adds. “They look different, but sometimes we have clients that ask for them, they are much more expensive because they aren’t trendy.”
Typically served with French fries and thought to be a refined dish – the second favorite dish in France in fact, according to a survey by Taylor Nelson Sofres in 2012 – mussels can be prepared boiled, steamed, roasted or fried in butter or oil. They are celebrated not only for their delicate and complex flavors – both sweet and soft, combined with a bit of chew and a subtle hint of sea – but also for their nutritional value and Omega 3 content.
But the contemporary sophistication of mussels and fries contrasts with its humble beginnings. The dish originated in Belgium and was a combination of the cheapest foodstuffs available around the Flemish coast at that time.
However, serving mussels can be a daunting task for the unacquainted. There are about 17 varieties of edible mussels differing in size, shape, color and, of course, flavor and relative chewiness. They must be checked thoroughly before consumption to ensure they are still alive before they are cooked, as enzymes can quickly break down and render the shellfish unpalatable and, worse, poisonous.
There is a simple way to check, Geara says, by tapping the outer shell; a live mussel will shut tightly when moved. If they are unresponsive, it is safe to assume they are dead and should be discarded.
When cooked, the mussel shells open to reveal a soft edible center.
Geara’s menu includes typical moules et frites recipes and newer, more creative ones. There are two options for patrons: 500 grams of mussels served in the traditional cocotte with an open side of fries for $25 or the special “Gogo” option with 1 kg of mussels served with open fries and alcohol for less than $50.
Locals prefer the traditional marinieres sauce to go with their mussels, which includes parsley, white wine, butter and herbs. But foreigners prefer Geara’s Lebanese inspired take, which features coriander, thyme, lemon and herbs. The restaurantalso serves a mussel gratin, made with crème fraiche and cheese.
While the small eatery is almost always packed on weekend nights, Geara says the summer months will prove whether the venture is successful: “We are afraid people might think there is no mussel production in the summer or that mussels can’t be eaten during this time – but in fact, mussels are available year round.”