I love mussel foraging. Gets you up early, on the beach, feet wet ... lunch always tastes great after foraging. Mussel season is open in Northern California from November to April, after which there is a danger of toxins being present in their flesh. Check with your local fish and game department for the season in your area.
Mussels live beneath the tide line, meaning that at high tide, they are submerged. Around San Francisco, where I live, you don’t want to spend too much time in the water without a wetsuit. If the water's cold where you live, go at low tide. (Even better, go at a minus tide, which is—surprise!—when the tide is below normal low tide.) I use these tide charts. Use Google to find the ones in your area. Also, mussels are filter feeders, which means that anything that’s in the water is going to be in their stomach, and by proxy, your stomach. So make sure there hasn't been, say, an oil spill in your locality before you go mussel hunting.
It is a race against time when you forage anything from the ocean. Unless you know the exact spot, you’ve got to do a bit of searching. You should be looking for large rocks that aren't too smooth (or the mussels wouldn’t be able to cling to them).
Wild mussels have a more interesting shell than the uniform black of cultivated mussels. The wilds can be iridescent in the sunlight, with waves of white, blue, black, green. And the size! Some of the biggest (and smallest) mussels I’ve ever seen. Leave the babies to have some time to grow up.
Wild Foraged Mussels with Sea Beans
1 cup salt
1/2 stick butter
3 cloves garlic, minced
4 to 5 shallots, minced
1/2 pound sea beans (also known as pickle weed), optional
30 wild mussels
2 cups white wine
1. Wild mussels need to be cleaned and purged. You may find a good amount of dirt, barnacles, and so on on the shell. Soak them in a bucket of salted ice water for 1 hour (1 cup salt with 2 cups of water), then scrape the shells individually with a coarse brush, discarding any that are open (try tapping the shells a couple times, and if they still don’t close it means they’re dead and inedible). If you are about to cook them, this is also a good time to "debeard" the mussel, which means rip off the hairy part that's coming out of the shell. Some wild mussel beards are all but impossible to remove, but do what you can.
2. Melt butter in a large sauté pan over medium heat. When butter begins to brown slightly, add garlic, stirring to coat, until it becomes aromatic. Add shallots and cook 30 seconds. Add sea beans (the sea beans add a really nice crisp, saltiness to the dish, but can be omitted if you can't find them), and cook 1 minute. Add the mussels, white wine, and salt and pepper to taste. Stir. When the mussels are open, they’re done.
3. Pour into 4 bowls with crusty bread, and serve. Easy. Delicious. Make sure to tell the story of foraging the mussels, and you’ll be a star.
Image by Robin Jolin