You’ve Not Really Eaten Mussels Until You’ve Tried Éclade an l’isle d’Oleron Speciality
The French have been producing blue mussels around the Isle d’Oleron area in the Charente-Maritime since 1235 making this shell fish the oldest on record as a cultivated delicacy.
Photo copyright and courtesy of the Bernezac.com tourism portal. As the Bernezac “Tourism on the Atlantic Coast Charente-Maritime” website notes: La Tremblade is famous for its charente specialties among them the éclade de moules, “spectacular and excellent, and absolutely to be tried”
Indeed France is one of Europe’s biggest centres for the cultivation of mussels in Europe so it is unsurprising that there is also a long tradition of preparing the shellfish in different ways. Among the more curious and tastiest of these the éclade certainly stands out.
Our food and nature correspondent Mike Alexander headed for Charente-Maritime in search of a fiery feast.
Watch an earlier France TV3 report on an annual fete featuring the éclade here:
As Mike reports:
It is supposed to be traditional in France to eat shell fish in any month with an R in it. This means that right now (SeptembeR) is officially mussel season and as anyone knows who has toured the small bistros and out-of-the-way cafe restos with which the country is blessed, these are normally offered as moules-frites.
However I recently learned of another very ancient way of preparing these wonderful molluscs — the éclade. This is a traditional technique widely practiced by oyster farmers in the Charente-Maritime and along the Atlantic coast on l’isle d’Oleron. Being a great mussel fan I jumped into the car in search of this new culinary adventure.
Éclade is a word that is thought to have its roots in the santongeais dialect that goes way back to Roman times and has intermingled with the patois of the Charentais. It is probably a derivative of aiguillade which means a covering of pine needles. The dish is made by covering the mussels with a deep (10cm) layer of dry pine needles and then setting the dish alight.
The pine needles are collected fresh from nearby plantations and chosen with care to ensure no earth is included.
Pine needles burn very fiercely for just a few minutes, the time needed to cook the mussels and simultaneously infuse them with the taste of wild pine — a smoky woody sweetness.
The day I set out to track down this dish it was overcast and bleak and I very much doubted anyone would be planning to cook outdoors in such dismal conditions. To make matters worse, although local villagers and various Tourism Office bods I spoke to knew about the éclade, most felt it was unlikely I would find one as they mainly featured at local fetes and similar special events. Also I was gently but firmly informed, mussels can be eaten year round, so my R month rule just did not apply! Ah well that probably made me the only foreign idiot in the country searching for an obscure and ancient dish outside of the summer season.
By the time I had reached the village of Mornac-sur-Seudre on the Charante coast, I had virtually abandoned my mission and took to wandering the streets of this quaint little town popping in and out of its many art and craft galleries in between intermittent showers.
Like many others in the area, Mornac-sur-Seudre is a fishing village where life virtually depends on oyster farming. But it has also attracted dozens of artists who have converted many of the tiny fishing cottages into galleries to display their varying crafts.
Wandering along a side street next to the river I unexpectedly stumbled across the Parc des Graves restaurant which lo and behold boldly featured éclade de moules on the menu. The dining area was an open deck on the banks of l’estuaire de la Seudre — the river estuary. Beneath its tented roof huddled a few damp and bedraggled tourists waiting for the umpteenth shower of the day to pass, while a lone waitress, rather hopefully in my opinion given the weather, set out dozens of tables.
When I approached and asked tentatively if they would be serving éclade that day she nodded and carried on absolutely undeterred by the rivulets of water trickling off the roof and the dearth, at that moment, of any potential customers.
Once I explained that I was hoping to write an article about the dish I was invited into the kitchen and shown the delicate assembly operation for the éclade, at that moment taking place on a grand and optimistic scale given the prevailing conditions. The cleaned mussels were being laid out on boards in concentric circles rather like large flower heads, with their hinged side faced upwards. The boards varied in size according to the number of diners with each portion being 500 grams.
The chef setting out the mussels was amazingly adept at what she did considering the balancing act that is required, particularly with the first few ‘foundation’ mussels. I had read that the inner circle could be supported by nails or a piece of dough but she balanced them with such skill and dexterity that no such wimpy little props were needed.
At midday with no other clients in sight the master of ceremonies wandered casually out onto the damp road side, flipped over a wire oyster basket, placed a mussel-packed board on top and then with the utmost nonchalance set fire to the first pile of pine needles covering the dishes. The impressive burst of flame seemed to act as some sort of call to eat and within half an hour the restaurant was packed with clients happily sitting in front of boards of flame blackened shell fish waiting to be swilled down with bottles of white Charentais wine and crusty buttered local bread.
My first éclade was a wonderful meal evoking both the sea and a stroll through a pine wood. You may come away somewhat blacked by ash but that is a minor downside to a very definitely worthwhile meal.
According to the EU Fisheries Commission France is one of Europe’s biggest producers of blue mussels which have been farmed here since 1235. This means they are environmentally sustainable which is important when so much of the seafood we consume today is endangered. I would advise anyone planning to dine on the éclade to phone ahead as most of the restaurateurs are also oyster fishermen and at this time of year they are very involved preparing the harvest for the Christmas and New Year festive season.
Alternatively you could buy some mussels and a board and try doing it yourself at home. It would be a great way to get rid of that old tree you have had lying at the end of the garden since last Christmas, but you may need some practice in getting the mussels to look the way they do in this photo:
Writer: Mike Alexander
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