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Musseling at Pescadero

Melanie Wong | Dec 31, 200112:57 AM

The combination tide table and calendar mounted on the wall had piqued my curiosity. Its usefulness became clear when my friend Peter announced that the coming Saturday would be a minus tide, an opportunity for gathering wild mussels. The trick was to be blessed with the right combination of marine and weather conditions in this wet and early winter. While a buoy in Half Moon Bay to the north was reporting 7’ waves, clear weather was forecast and we decided to make the drive to Pescadero to check out local surf conditions.

Heading north on Skyline then winding down Alpine to the coast, our drive took us past the “flamingo house” in Loma Mar fully dolled up for Christmas. This is a chalet-style home perched on a few acres of creek side property adorned with hundreds of pink plastic flamingos. The flamingo-festooned landscape had been supplemented with enormous glowing candy canes, big red bows, and figurines of Santa’s helpers for the season. Always good for a hoot, at this time of year it was even more of a spectacle.

We had some extra time and stopped by Phipps Ranch in Pescadero, a first time for me. Famous for the bin after colorful bin of different varieties of beans, including many rare ones, other types of local produce and plenty of pumpkins are also sold at the country store. We strolled through the menagerie where we were ceremoniously greeted by loud brays from the donkey, which then set off the ducks and geese to rouse the entire barnyard in cacophony.

At the beach before the estimated time of low tide, we found mostly blue sky with a few dark clouds overhead, only a light breeze, and a few degrees more warmth than inland. The rocks and sandy beach were gilded by the golden glow of the late afternoon sun. The surf was choppy but didn’t look dangerous at ebb tide. The only question was how wet were we willing to get in order to collect some mussels. We were here, so we decided to go for it.

When Peter pointed to the location of the mussel beds, my first reaction was that this was surely the most easily accessible and convenient fishing excursion I’d ever been on. Mussels awaited only a hop, skip and a jump from the parking lot on Hwy. 1, literally. Take a few wooden steps leading down to the beach, skip over some large rocks, climb up the stone bridge, just a few more strides, and soon you’ll be standing on mussels. Peter’s taller frame could clamber over these obstacles more easily than my 5’ 1” height, but there was only one big step down that was of any trouble for me on this brief hike.

The low tide had revealed the larger mussels below the normal surf line. The biggest ones were up to about 4” long. Equipped with work gloves, soon we were tugging the shiny black bivalves from the rocks. Peter was attired with more splash gear than I and didn’t mind collecting between the waves for some of the choicest specimens. I opted to stay drier above the water line, looking for the few nice ones interspersed with smaller mussels. The mussels along the edges of a group or protruding were where attached on only one or two sides rather than being surrounded were the easiest to harvest. In no time at all, we had collected 10 pounds, which is the one-person daily limit. Peter rinsed them a few times to remove some sand and topped up the two small buckets with seawater to keep the mussels alive.

Looking at the clock when we returned to the car, I was amazed that we had only been out for 20 minutes. This was as easy as picking tomatoes in the garden. Of course, I wasn’t the one who carried those heavy buckets back to the parking lot.

The mussels were transferred to a five-gallon paint bucket, pouring the sea water gently to try to leave the sand behind. Peter popped the lid on and asked, “you don’t mind steadying this between your knees for the ride home, do you?” While I had once cradled a legendary bottle of Domaine Romanée-Conti “La Tache” burgundy in this fashion for the drive from Laurel Canyon to Santa Barbara, I was dubious about keeping this amount of liquid from splashing on the winding road back to the ridge top. Instead, I suggested that we wedge the bucket behind the front passenger seat which did the trick. We stopped in downtown Pescadero to buy some artichoke foccacia (awful and not recommended) from Arcangeli bakery and a slice of pecan and one of strawberry-rhubarb pie from Duarte’s Tavern (highly recommended and the place to buy a fishing license).

Back in his kitchen, ever pedagogical, Peter said, “they all went into the bucket individually and separated, right?” I nodded. He then picked up a handful of mussels to demonstrate that they were now all attached to each other, in the less than an hour since we’d left the beach. Unlike the uniform, squeaky clean, farm-raised PEI mussels, these local ones have thicker, heavier, scarred shells covered with barnacles and much tougher beards. I enjoyed just looking at them with appreciation for their own form of wild beauty. We did our best to pull off the very tough beards, sometimes cutting them off with scissors, rinsed the mussels in fresh water, and let them soak a bit to expel more salt and sand.

We tried two different preps. I separated out a half dozen of the biggest mussels to experiment with dry roasting in a hot oven. The rest went into the steamer pot with some white wine and a little water. I had scavenged the best of my morning blind tasting drills – 1982 Chalone “Reserve” Pinot Blanc and 1999 Ch. Ste. Michelle “Cold Creek” Chardonnay – but pronouncing both overoaked, Peter nixed them for steaming the mussels. He offered the 2001 Neudorf Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand’s south island which was splendid for cooking, that is, for the cooks to sip while working in the kitchen and for the steamer pot too.

Meanwhile, I was in charge of the pasta pot for boiling some capellini to go with the marinara sauce I’d bought at The Pasta Shop in Rockridge. Peter was working his alchemy at the far counter concocting a vinaigrette with fragrant liquids drizzled and dripped from mysterious vials and bottles to dress the exquisite greens he’d bought that morning at the local farmers market. I caught but a glimpse of walnut oil and orange essential oil. Elusive orange notes danced on the peppery flavors of the curly cress and the sweetness of balsamico swirled with the richness of the walnut oil to set-off the attractive bitterness of the winter greens. This salad was balanced to harmonize with Sauvignon Blanc making the wine seem grassier and more citrusy. One more thing to fix – melted butter with roasted garlic and a squeeze of perfumed juice from the Meyer lemon plucked from his deck – and everything was ready.

The proof of a day’s effort is in the eating, and we were richly rewarded. Demonstrating that some foods are not only delicious in themselves but as a vehicle for conveying melted butter and garlic to the gullet, we gorged ourselves on butter-drenched mussels. Stronger in flavor than farmed mussels and chewier, the extra earthiness of these bivalves was accented perfectly by high-pitched floral tones of the Meyer lemon garlic butter and the youthful, aggressive tropical flavors of the Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc. The roasted mussels seemed meatier in flavor and texture, but maybe this was more a function of their size rather than cooking method. Next time I’ll put them on a rack in a roasting pan as the amount of liquid they exuded in the oven tended to steam them. Even so, I enjoyed swabbing the remains of marinara sauce from my pasta bowl with these plump, oversized mussels. After sampling the full range of mussel sizes in our catch, the ones between 2” and 2.5” were the best eating for me.

Some say that a day without wine is like a day without sunshine. For Peter, red wine seems to be the daily requirement. Despite the fine whites we’d already consumed, he also pulled the cork on an unlabeled half-bottle for me to try, and said, “I made this from a friend’s Cab vineyard just below Montebello Ridge, what do you think?”

“Mmm, smells like Santa Cruz Mountain cab should, full of cedar and gnarly underbrush aromas. If you believe in terroir, this proves it in spades. Yet, it doesn’t have the iodine of Jimsomare. Still attractive with nice varietal character, shows good balance albeit a touch under ripe, the finish has shortened up. Color is healthy but mature, might it be 1986?”, I ask.

The Cabernet Sauvignon turned out to be from the 1985 vintage, and Peter seemed pleased with my assessment. We enjoyed it with a bit of black truffle-studded pecorino and a ripe robiola along with some roasted Italian hazelnuts and candied cherries amarena.

For a finale, dessert of Duarte’s pies provided a sweet ending to a very satisfying day of food gathering in Pescadero. The pecan was especially excellent.

If you’d like to try musseling, check the link below for a general tide table for the San Francisco Bay Area. The Biotoxin/Shellfish Information Line at 1-800-553-4133 provides information on the current quarantines for sport harvesting of shellfish in California.


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