05 October 2008

The island at the edge of time

Pretty much one year ago, our dear friend Mel visited from Australia. We picked her up in London, where she visited another mutual friend, and then took off on a two weeks tour by car to show her around Europe.

At least, we showed her around Paris, and so many German castles and baroque parks that I lost count along the way.

But one hightlight definitely was the detour we took on our way from London to Paris. While not exactly 'en route', the Mont St. Michel was close enough to warrant an extra stop on our tour, and luckily, we deciced to stay the night on the island itself.

It was magical.

The Mont St. Michel is a terribly touristy place. It is a breathtaking sight, especially when the island first looms on the horizon like some very weird kind of spaceship. But the place itself is so crowded, you can harld see the buildings or the monastery, you're just being shoved on by the huddled masses.

But at nightfall, all this changes. The tourist busses leave, and with them all the noise, all the nervous buzz and hawking touristy-ness. What remains is just a handful of people who stay in the few rooms available there and the staff of hotels and retaurants. Within less than an hour, the whole place seems to take a deep breath and once again turns into that magic place travellers have come to marvel at since centuries.
It is basically just you and this medieval town below the looming monastery, with the sea all around, sights and sound so timelessly breathtaking they feel like from the very edge of time.

From dusk till dawn, you're left alone, and sunrise on the island was another moment I will never forget.

Naturally, we had dinner on the island as well. We were lucky to get a table with a view all over the bay, and were right on time to see both the tide come in and see the shadow of the island wander along our view like the pointer of a giant sundial.

Food wasn't too memorable, with two notable exceptions. The first being Mel's first time of trying foie gras, or 'tortured goose liver', which she didn't like too much, to put it mildly.
And the other exception was the starter my wife had chosen, a bowl of 'moules a la creme', mussels in cream. They were good, much better than expected, actually they were positively exceptional.

I had grown up with Odettes version of 'moules aremoricaine', being mussels in a broth of tomatoes and white wine, with tons of garlic and parsley. Very good, and actually one of the first seafood I really liked.

But these moules a la creme at the Mont St. Michel were something special. Right there in the restaurant, I couldn't quite put my finger to it, mostly due to the fact that my wife only allowed me to taste two measly spoonful of her bowl. But there was something that 'clicked', some aromes that worked perfectly together and both underscored and enhanced the taste of the mussels.

I had to promise on spot that I would learn how to re-create this recipe.

And guess what, I did. I remembered the taste of a lot of onions, bay leaves, and white wine, and not much else. Heavy cream, of course.

Back at home, I tried the simplest possible version of the recipe, and ZAP - an instant keeper.

Simple, with very few ingredients, failsafe and plain lovely. The bay leaves and the onions in the white wine just work perfectly for the mussels, to a point that the recipe feels a little to me like this was the way mussels were intended to be served from the very beginning: in a steaming bowl, with cream and a lot of fresh, crispy bread to get as much of the delicious broth as possible.

Moules a la creme - Mussels in cream sauce
serves 2

2 kg mussels, cleaned
3 medium onions
75 g butter
1 heaped tablespoon flour
2 bay leaves
0,5 l dry white wine
0,5 l heavy cream
pepper, garlic and ground anisseed to taste

If necessary, clean the mussels.
We were lucky to get a bunch of galician mussels, which I vastly prefer to the usual ones you get here. They are a dirty, gritty, hard-shelled bunch, those Galicians, but damn, they are healthy. Hardly a dead one in between, all of them sturdy and almost snapping at your fingers, even after a trip through half of Europe. A real mess to clean, but worth every extra minute.

Finely chop the onions.

In a large cast-iron pot, melt the butter and stir in the onions. Cook until the onions begin to soften and start smelling sweet (until they lose their bite). Add the flour and mix until well combined.
75g butter are a lot, but I highly recommend being generous in this case. It is worth it.

Add the bay leaves and the white wine and bring to a vigorous boil.
If you want to, you can add a bit of garlic, some ground black pepper or some chili at this point. A little anisseed works lovely as well, though no more than a quarter of a teaspoon maybe. I usually leave it at the basic recipe, though, as the simplicity only adds to the appeal in my eyes.

Add the mussels, bring to boil again and cook for about ten minutes. Stirr occasionally, until all mussels have opened.

Take the mussels out of the broth, and set aside. Boil down the broth until only about two thirds remain.

Add the cream, and reheat.
Do not boil, or else the sauce will fall apart. If it does, it can be remedied by adding a little more flour mixed with cold water.

Season to taste.
There is no need to add salt, usually, as the mussels will have added enough salt on their own.

Pour back the mussels to the sauce, reheat one last time. Serve with fresh white bread and more of the white wine used for cooking.

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