The French have long had a love affair with mussels. According to local lore, they have a shipwrecked Irishman to thank for that.
In 1235, as the story goes, Patrick Walton was shipwrecked in Aiguillon Bay, off the Atlantic coast of Vendée, France. Starving, he stuck two wooden poles in the water and attached a net in between to trap fish and seabirds. The story doesn’t mention whether he ended up catching any fish, but Walton soon noticed hundreds of mussels latching onto the submerged wood. He shared his discovery with locals, and thus began the practice of mussel farming on wooden poles—moules de bouchot—along the French Atlantic coastline.
However, to this day, this story has been contested by the people of Vendée, who claim that this technique has been a local tradition of the region since the 10th century, long before Walton’s discovery.
In any case, mussels are now cultivated all along the western French coastline, from the Atlantic Charente-Maritime region, south of Vendée, all the way up to Hauts-de-France on the North Sea, passing through Brittany and Normandy, respectively the second-largest and largest producers of mussels in the country. Each region has its own way of cooking mussels—usually with cream in Normandy or cider in Brittany—but moules marinières, hailing from Vendée, are by far the most renowned.
Quick and casual, moules marinières are the French’s favorite way to enjoy mussels: steamed in dry white wine and spruced up with shallots, parsley, and butter. The word “marinière,” translating loosely to “sailor-style,” refers to the blue and white striped blouse often worn by sailors and locals on the French Atlantic coast. Briny and aromatic, the dish is a bistro staple, one I inevitably order whenever I visit the French coastline.
Choosing and Preparing Mussels
Moules marinières may be a regional specialty, but you can easily make them at home—and transport yourself to the French coast in just 10 minutes.
Mussels are delicious, relatively easy to find, and affordable. In France, their peak season is from late summer through late spring. A common saying dictates that you should only eat mussels in months containing the letter “r”—that is, from September through April, when they’re at their best.
In the United States, almost all mussels are cultivated—farmed in natural bodies of water—so you’ll likely always find a variety that’s in season throughout the year. For moules marinières, any common variety of mussels will work, including blue or black (most likely to be found at your local shop), Mediterranean, or green-lip (almost always imported from New Zealand). They can vary in size, brininess, and flavor intensity, but rather than assessing their flavor profile, you should simply choose the ones that are fresh and in season—they’ll likely taste the best and be the most sustainable option as well.
After buying your mussels, a quality check and cleaning are often necessary. Place the mussels in your kitchen sink and look for any shells that are open. If the shell doesn’t close when you press on it, the mussel is dead and you can discard it. Keeping only the fresh-smelling and tightly-closed mussels, pass them under cold water and brush them quickly with a vegetable brush to pull off any beards.
Mussels are best cooked the same day on which you buy them.
Choosing the Wine
To steam your mussels, opt for a dry white wine. In comparison to sweet wine, a dry white has a refreshing acidity and subtler fruit aromas that won’t overpower the mussels, but simply let their natural, briny flavor shine.
Ideally, reach for a bottle hailing from France’s southern Atlantic coast, where moules marinières originated. The region is renowned for producing exceptional dry “nouveau” white wines, which are bright and lively from limited aging time. They’re perfect for cooking moules marinières—and for sipping alongside them as well.
This simple, aromatic pot of mussels can be cooked in 10 minutes and is best enjoyed immediately. Serve with a crusty baguette for mopping up the briny juices, frites, or a simple green salad on the side and the leftover wine in the bottle to drink. Place one or two extra bowls on the table for empty shells.
Although not traditional, some people like to add a splash of heavy cream to the sauce (about 1/4 cup) at the end. These moules marinières “a la crème” are just as delicious, but the rich, creamy broth makes them best-suited for festive occasions.
- 4 pounds fresh mussels
- 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened at room temperature, divided
- 1 tablespoon flour
- 2 shallots, peeled and minced
- 4 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
- 1 cup dry white wine
- 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
- 1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley
Inspect the mussels and discard any with open shells. Scrub the mussels clean under cold water, removing any beards.
In a small bowl, combine 1 tablespoon of the butter with the flour. Mix with a fork until it becomes a paste. Set aside.
In a large pot over medium heat, melt the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter. Add the shallots and garlic and cook for about 3 minutes, stirring frequently, until the shallots are translucent but not caramelized yet.
Increase the heat to medium-high and add the white wine and the mussels. Stir, cover with a lid, and let steam for about 4 to 5 minutes, shaking the pot occasionally and peeking in every 30 seconds. As soon as the mussels have opened up, use tongs or a slotted spoon to transfer them to a large bowl. Cover the bowl with the pot lid to keep the mussels warm.
Add the butter-flour paste to the white wine sauce still in the pot and mix until incorporated. Let simmer for 1 to 2 minutes, until slightly thickened.
Return the mussels to the pot. Sprinkle with black pepper and fresh parsley and stir. Serve immediately, dividing the mussels between serving bowls and pouring the juices from the pot over the top.