At sea with the mussel men

Its 9am and I’m standing on the deck of the Mare Gratia thanking the heavens that it’s a calm still day. The Menai Straits are like a looking-glass reflecting the mountains as the sun slowly creeps up behind them. It’s the proverbial mill-pond and I’m looking forward to a morning’s mussel collecting with mussel farmer James Wilson and his crew.

It was one of those fluke meetings that led to this trip. A train journey to London and a conversation about occupations introduced food blogger and writer (me) to Menai mussel fisherman (James). I happened to mention that I loved mussels and was keen to go on a boat trip out and so he invited me. A month later here I was, boarding a boat bound for the Straits.

The mussel boat usually sails three times a week during mussel season (October to march) but I chose to join them on the day with the most humane leaving time (9am). Our mission: to collect 20 tons of mussels.

Mussel collecting in the Menai Straits is as old as the hills,  but the modern industry has been going for about 50 years. These days it’s a cross between farming and fishing; the seed (or juvenile mussels) are collected from further afield and returned to the local beds where they grow and mature naturally, not on ropes or chains, but on the bed of the straits itself. This process apparently produces a better flavoured mussel and who am I to argue, I love our local mussels!

Three main companies work the Menai Straits collecting mussels on beds that stretch between Caernarfon and Beaumaris. James’s company works primarily at the Beaumaris end of the Straights.

I’d read that Menai mussels make up around fifty percent of the UK mussel market, but James pointed out that this is dependent on how much is produced elsewhere. Northern Ireland and Scotland make up the rest of the market and in a normal year James reckoned that Menai mussels probably make up about thirty percent of the UK market. What really surprised me though is just how small the UK mussel market actually is! Most of those we set out to collect that morning were bound for Holland!

I am a person that tries her best to cut food miles so you can imagine my outrage when I discovered that our Welsh mussels were mostly destined for Europe, however James reassured me that mussels sort of redress the balance by being good at recycling carbon emissions. Carbon is a constituent ingredient of shell, in fact around 40 grams per kilo of mussels will be carbon, which put me and my environmental concerns into perspective a little.

Still, even if it’s not a food mile issue it is a shame that so many of our native gown mussels end up elsewhere. The demand for mussels in the UK market is tiny compared to Europe where they consume much more seafood. Even though the domestic market is growing (at around 15% a year) and we sell more now than ten or twelve years ago (mostly to the restaurant trade) it’s still a small percentage.

I asked James why when we are so close to the sea, the local supermarkets don’t seem too keen to stock this abundant local produce…

Much of it comes down to processing regulations and grading.  Supermarkets in the UK have historically been twitchy about buying from anywhere but ‘grade A’ sources, they are the ones deemed safest based on water tests. Safety tests and required preparation  prior to selling do appear to vary widely between countries but overall there is little difference in the mussel quality of the Menai mussels and those produced in Scotland or Ireland especially after cleaning and processing. It is simply because the waters of the Menai Straits are classed as ‘long-term grade B’, they have generally not made it to British supermarket shelves, or at least not until they have been to Holland for treatment then come back again!

With the UK market slowly growing there is more of a demand for Menai Mussels but no processing facilities to treat and clean them. In Scotland this infrastructure is in place which is  why most of the mussels we see in the supermarkets come from there.

I asked James what could be done to improve the selling of Menai mussels locally and in the UK….

The immediate plan is to build a processing factory on the harbour side where the mussels are landed. They can then be cleaned, packaged and more sold locally and to the wider UK.  As far as I’m concerned this is great news for the local population here in Bangor and the surrounding area. It means that we might once again have our own harbour side fresh fish shop stocking local mussels just like we did when I moved to Wales all that time ago!

Leaving harbour

Leaving harbour

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Bangor pier in the mist

Bangor pier in the mist

sun coming up behind the mountains

sun coming up behind the mountains

Mussel collecting: they look like brushes and sweep over the top of the mussel bed, shifting the mussel 'mud' but not disturbing the bed itself

Mussel collecting: they look like brushes and sweep over the top of the mussel bed, shifting the mussel ‘mud’ but not disturbing the bed itself

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lifting the mussels

lifting the mussels

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nets full of mussels

nets full of mussels

emptying the net into the container ready for cleaning

emptying the net into the container ready for cleaning

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mussels being washed, cleaned and bagged

mussels being washed, cleaned and bagged

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lifting the mussels off the boat

lifting the mussels off the boat

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not the most flattering picture of James so I hope he forgives me my bad photography

not the most flattering picture of James so I hope he forgives me my bad photography

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Filed under British food, local produce, Sources and suppliers, sustainable fish, Welsh food

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