A famous or well-loved national dish is often more than the sum of its parts. Along with its constituent ingredients there is usually a large dollop of history and a handful of geography thrown in. It’s certainly true of the Belgian obsession with mussels.
Most commonly served accompanied by thinly sliced chips as moules frites (or mosselen-friet in Dutch), the dish is a staple on menus across the country. The lowly friteries – little fry shops – largely stick to the chips, now that the traditional cheap peasant dish has moved up the food chain. But enter any bistro or restaurant and moules frites will have pride of place on the carte.
Over the years, Belgium’s chefs have become increasingly adventurous with their favourite ingredient. Simple moules frites is just one dish on offer, there’s moules natures, steamed with celery, leeks and a bit of butter, moules à la crème, steamed in white wine and cream; à l’ail with garlic, and other concoctions involving curry powder and even Pernod for a dash of anise.
The Belgian love affair with the mussel dates back centuries to the days when the area was part of the Low Countries, incorporating Belgium, The Netherlands and Luxembourg. This extensive coastal region was distinguished by a delta formed from the Rhine, Meuse, Scheldt and Ems rivers where the land is at or below sea level. The Low Countries had access to so many tidal waterways where the bivalve flourishes that it is unsurprising that Belgians developed a taste for mussels, or ‘black gold’, as they are sometimes called.
Although Belgium broke away from Dutch rule in the 1830s, some of the finest mussels available in the country still come from neighbouring Holland, taken from the Scheldt River. The Scheldt, which flows from Western Belgium through the Netherlands to the North Sea, is a point of friction between the two historic rivals. It provides strategic access to the Belgian port of Antwerp, and in 2009, thanks to a river dispute, the humble mussel was elevated to become a symbol of resistance.
The story goes that the Dutch weren’t keeping up an agreement to dredge the river on their side of the border, thus reducing traffic to Antwerp and apparently costing Belgium more than £60m a year in lost trade. Belgian diners and restaurateurs were called upon to boycott Scheldt mussels.
It perhaps says more about the irresistible flavour of the Scheldt mussel than the patriotism of the Belgians that the boycott fizzled out. When faced with a choice between mussels and national revenue, Belgians voted with their stomachs. Annick De Ridder, a Belgian MP who had called for the boycott, rather forlornly recognised the futility of the gesture. “People tell me all the time that they agree with me,” she said, “but the mussels are so good. I understand: I love them too.”
Although there are arcane rules about when to eat mussels (such as only in months or seasons containing an ‘r’), Scheldt mussels are technically in season from July through until April. Otherwise, chefs use farmed mussels from Zeeland in the Netherlands or moules bouchot – French-grown mussels reared on ropes wrapped around posts in the sea.
Accompaniments are just as important to the moules experience. The genesis of frites is hotly contested and the French are often the first to claim credit, but a Flemish manuscript dating from 1781 mentions something resembling the modern chip. When the potato was first introduced to Europe at the end of the sixteenth century, it was eagerly adopted by Belgian farmers and, according to the manuscript, in winter when fish was in short supply, potatoes would be thinly sliced to resemble them and then fried.
Today the potato most favoured for frites in Belgium is the bintjes, which is high in starch. These are thinly sliced and fried twice, first at a low temperature to cook and soften them and again at a high temperature to render them crispy with a fluffy centre.
For a seemingly simple and unpretentious dish, moules frites is surprisingly complicated. But whatever the variation on Belgium’s national obsession – a classic moules marinières or something more esoteric – a glass of Belgian beer is the only drink to wash it down with.