Thursday, 24 November 2011

Do you know the mussel man?

(Oyster beds in the Gulf of Kalloni)

Yes, I know the mussel man, the mussel man lives in Skala Polichnitou*. In the winter Lesvos makes up a small part of the Greek mussel industry. That is to say, if all goes well and the local fishing unions are not at war with each other.

Three local fishing unions are fishing in the same pond: the Gulf of Kalloni. The fishermen of Skala Kallonis who want to go fishing for mussels depend on the fishermen of Skala Polichnitou, where the main commerce of mussels takes place on the island. This year however there are enough fishermen in Skala Polichnitou to not need the fishermen from Skala Kallonis. The Skala Kallonis’ fellows felt so frustrated being without a job that they have decided to make life difficult for their fishing colleagues: they complained to the authorities that too many undersized mussels were being sold and so the inspection service decided that all mussels coming out of the Gulf of Kalloni should be measured and that they must be at least 5 cm.

One fisherman had decided to go fishing for mussels and other shellfish this winter. It was a big decision to make, because if you don’t have a diver’s certificate and two year’s of shellfish experience, you need to hire a diver who has those qualifications to harvest the mussels from the sea bottom (which is the most usual way to catch shell fish on this island). And then you must have lots of patience in order to obtain all the licences and you’ll also need a small investment fund. The boat of the fisherman belongs to the small fishing fleet of Skamnioudi and even before going out on the water, this man had a buyer in Thessaloniki for his catch. When he found a crew, all papers were regulated, his boat was converted for shellfish catching and when the winds slowed down he finally set off to sea (although you cannot call the Gulf of Kalloni really a sea, because only at its end is there a small connection with the sea).

I have no idea how many mussels make up one kilo. But I can imagine, that as a boat can catch hundreds of kilos a day, measuring mussels is not the work you look forward to, after coming ashore after a day of hard work at sea. It also means loosing time in getting your catch to its buyer and time and extra labour is money. Then after making your calculations, you find it’s better not to play the mussel man, because with all those extra costs you’re better off staying in the harbour.

Ai, ai, ai, those Greeks. They can be so bloody jealous!

In Holland you mostly eat cultivated mussels, but here on Lesvos it’s the wild ones that live on the bottom of both the Gulf of Kalloni and the Gulf of Gera. With their beards they anchor themselves to the sea bottom and they feed by filtering plankton out of the sea water. When they are a few years old they are ready for consumption.

There is another difference: in Holland it is the blue mussel (Mytilus edulis) that is commonly eaten while here on Lesvos it is the Mediterranean Mussel (Mytilus galloprovincialis). Not that I know the difference. Last week I ate Mediterranean Mussels in the Dutch way, meaning that I served them cooked accompanied with bread and some dip sauces. They were so delightful that, for a split second, I got homesick for the restaurants in Amsterdam where I used to eat mussels on a regular base.

Greeks eat them in a different way, normally as a meze with ouzo. They eat them raw with a sprinkle of lemon juice, just like oysters. I do not support eating raw oysters (I love the taste but get sick) and so I don’t eat mussels raw. I‘d rather cook them to be on the safe side.

A Greek recipe with cooked mussels is midia saganaki: mussels in a tomatoe sauce with feta, just like the garides saganaki (with shrimps). But there is an easy way to make your Dutch (or other local) mussels in a Greek way: you just add some ouzo to the cooking juice.

The story that you have to discard the mussels that remain closed after cooking seems to be a fairy tale. That’s just a mussel with very strong muscles. They just don’t give-up during cooking but you can open them and enjoy their tastey meat (really bad mussels will smell strongly).

The Greek tragedy of the newly made mussel man has not finished yet. The hired diver (the new mussel man has a diver’s certificate but only one year’s experience on a shellfish boat) caught so few mussels that there was a quarrel and the diver left. Now the boat is anchored in the harbour and the remaining fishermen still have to charge more for their catch. I am wondering how long it will take for the buyer on the mainland to find cheaper mussels. Because then Lesvos can say goodbye to its mussel industry and they may never come out of the crisis.

Together we know the mussel man, the mussel man, the mussel man
Together we know the mussel man, he lives in Thessaloniki*

* A traditional folk song from Hollland: ‘Zeg, ken jij de mosselman?’

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

@ Smitaki 2011

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