In the Land of Mussels and Potatoes

Few places in this world live up to their storybook image. Prince Edward Island, home to the rolling hills and farms of Anne of Green Gables, is one of them. And in July, after the brilliant blues and purples of the lupins have faded and the rush of lobster season passes, it’s time for potatoes and mussels. Row after row of flowering potato plants line the roadways. Intersections are dotted with handwritten signs announcing that potatoes and other produce are ready for purchase. As for the mussels, it’s hard to glimpse a bit of a bay or a river that doesn’t play home to the floating white bobbers that proclaim mussels growing here. From a distance, you might think they are gulls or ducks taking a little rest. But then you realize they are far too perfectly inline.

Mussels are notoriously slow growing. It take 5 years to produce an edible mussel, but once they are ready, they are plentiful. On PEI, a 5 lb bag of mussels, picked up at the local office, costs only $7 (CN)… 5 lbs is about 150 mussels. We had mussel appetizers two days for 5 people, and everyone was more than satiated. These were mussels that were harvested the morning of purchase, so fresh they might still have been spitting at us if they weren’t so cold from the ice they were sitting on. With an amazingly small number of “duds” in the bunch, we steamed them up with some wine and herbs and savored each plump and sweet bite. To mix it up, the second night, we substituted a red Thai curry sauce. Red curry paste was a bit hard to find in the local market… as were the ingredients to make one from scratch, so I had to use a premade curry sauce. And while the curry wasn’t quite up to my own picky likes, the mussels more than made up for the overall flavor.

And then, there are the potatoes, purchased straight from the farm. This farm was the “Mussel Farm” although that was their name, not what they sold, and we followed signs down the road, around the corner and up the driveway, where a couple of 7 year old boys were running around the lawn and two adults were over by the outbuildings chatting. The sign in the tree said “Honk for Service” but with people outside, we felt odd about that. So, stepping out of the car, we hoped that someone would help us out. As we walked over, the presumed farmer still continued to ignore us although gave us a slight sideways glance as he continued his conversation. Eventually, my husband piped up, “Um, excuse me… we were hoping to get some potatoes?”

“Yep” the farmer replied in two syllables.

And that was pretty much the extent of the conversation. He must have had ESP with someone in the house, because in a few minutes, a teenage boy came out with a 5lb bag of new potatoes. We paid ($5) and thanked the kid, and went on our way.

Later, I learned that somewhere around 85% of the potatoes grown on PEI go to McDonalds and are not available for purchase. Somehow, they’ve managed to grow big skinless and oblong potatoes for that make processing for french fries effortless. The potatoes we got, likely Irish Cobblers although there was no indication of the variety, looked kind of like the distant cousins to those… small and skinless, shaped a bit like a cross between a fingerling and the small round new potatoes I’m used to.

I’m sad to say, I didn’t get any photos of these potatoes, because they were truly amazing. However, a photo never would have done these justice. These little gems were unlike any potato I’ve had. Grilled for an hour outside in tin foil with a touch of butter, onion and garlic, each bite was a creamy, silky mouthful. There was no sense of starch, just smoothness and flavor…. what I never realized a potato should taste like. I wanted to leave our clothes in PEI, and fill our suitcases with potatoes. Unfortunately, the border patrol frowns upon the unauthorized importing of agricultural products, so the potatoes had to stay while we headed home.

Steaming Mussels

olive oil
Onion, finely chopped
Garlic, minced
Tomatoes, chopped
Cilantro or flat leaf parsley, chopped
Dry white wine
Salt & Pepper to taste

With fresh mussels, you’ll need to de-beard them first. This is a bit of a tedious process, grabbing the little strands and yanking them out. Run each mussel under cold water to remove any sediment. If a mussel is open and doesn’t close under cold water, discard it.

Heat a tablespoon or two of olive oil in a tall sided pot, and soften the onions and garlic on low heat until translucent. Increase heat, and add the cilantro, tomatoes and season to taste. Add enough wine to fill about 1/2 an inch of the bottom of the pot. When the wine starts to steam, add the mussels and steam for about 5 minutes, or until the mussels are all open. Serve immediately. When serving, discard any mussels that are still closed.

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