Garden Diary, March 2015

I know, dear readers and my good friend Helen, that I have mentioned my tomato glut in many other posts but I must mention two particular tomato varieties that featured in my vegetable garden this year. Firstly, the miniature yellow pear, which quickly became a triffid and bore fruit throughout December (unusual in Melbourne) and continues to do so. I attempted to weigh the crop but soon tired of this chore- many have been left on the vine as I couldn’t keep up with them.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe next tomato I promised to report on was the black-skinned tomato that my son grew from seeds purchased on eBay. They did eventually turn red and are in no way related to the more desirable Krim or Black Russian but go by the name ‘Indigo Rose’.  They are blue tomatoes engineered at the Oregon State University. They are prolific, long keepers and medium-sized but sadly, they lack true tomato flavour so I won’t be growing these next year.

Indigo Rose Tomatoes

Indigo Rose Tomatoes

My favourite tomato, Rouge de Marmande cropped poorly this year and the Roma has called it quits already and it is only March! The season has been odd- one very hot spell in December, followed be a cool summer. Even the basil is slow.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe cool summer has meant an abundant supply of strawberries : they have produced continually for months and early self seeding of radicchio, rainbow chard and cavolo nero. You win some, you lose some with each season.

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self sown cavolo nero ( Tuscan kale- black kale )

self sown cavolo nero ( Tuscan kale- black kale )

This year Alberto tied up the leeks and spring onions onto stakes. Their seed is now ready. They make great architectural statements in the veggie patch.

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I have recycled lots of household junk. This basic clothes airer is used to support cucumber vines. The legs bury nicely into the soil.

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I saved my disintegrating pool lounge chairs and turned them into shade houses to protect lettuce seed and young seedlings from drying out. I sow directly into the ground.

Frame of pool lounge covered in shade cloth.

Frame of pool lounge covered in shade cloth.

And here’s the pillow end of the old pool chair, ready to provide some instant shade wherever it’s needed.  No land fill, no tipping fees- just re-purposed junk.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERATo do list:

  • remove shade cloth from the hooped frames now that the weather has turned mild.
  • make more compost
  • sow autumn vegetable seedlings, lettuce, carrots, spring onions, brocolli.
  • transplant self-sown seedlings as keeping them in the same bed will deplete them of goodness. Crop rotation makes sense.
  • remove bird nets from raspberry beds and cut back some of the canes.
  • pick all the grapes.

A good visitor to my veggie patch is this little ladybird beetle.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe veggie patch has also benefited greatly from the manure provided by our cows and hens. Here is young Dougie Dexter begging me for another cow lolly ( acorn).  I would like to sell him and his cousin Oh Danny Boy but I don’t want them to end up on a BBQ!

Dougie Dexter

Dougie Dexter

Not only does this post from a monthly record of food gardening activities, it also features in the Garden Share Collective, kindly coordinated by Lizzie. Follow the link to see other amazing gardens throughout Australia, New Zealand and United Kingdom.

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Pear Almond and Amaretto Frangipane Torta. Too Easy.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA little anniversary passed by the other day : I published my 200th post on this site, making me wonder whether my blog has a secret life of its own. What started as a journal to record my obsession with cooking and all things Italian, interspersed with the odd travel and garden post, has acquired its own weekly and monthly rhythm and character. I enjoy the weekly travel prompts provided by Ailsa at Where’s My Backpack, and the photographic challenge offered by The daily Post at WordPress.  A month doesn’t pass by without popping into Celia’s ‘In my Kitchen’ at Fig Jam and Lime Cordial and I attempt to record my vegetable garden efforts in the monthly Garden Share Collective. I have met some wonderful folk along the way: my virtual world is a positive and palpable part of my life. These friends have encouraged me to make my own sourdough bread ( Celia) explore new recipe books, taking me out of my comfort zone, thanks to Leah at The Cookbook Guru, acquire wonderful vintage cookbooks due to scholarly accounts by Debi at My Kitchen Witch, visit a most fabulous garden and seaside in New Zealand at Julie’s Frog Pond Farm, read the most enticing recipes by the best cook in Melbourne ( Sandra at Please Pass the Recipe), be amused by Lorraine’s antics at Not Quite Nigella, feel envious of Jane’s energy and her volume of baking at The Shady Baker, reflect on the wisdom and beauty of Ardys desert photographs at Ardysez and the storytelling of Ella Dee. There are so many more, newer friends, too numerous to mention, especially the documenters of Italian life, those residing near Lucca and travellers in that great country.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMy top rating post of all time is Apricot Almond Cake with Amaretto. Easy Frangipane quickly followed by In My Kitchen. February 2014 ,

My ostracised posts,those languishing at the bottom end of the stats page, are Travel Theme: World Cups  and Travel Theme: Energy.

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Thanks to you, dear reader, for encouraging me along the way with your comments, ‘likes’ and views. As a way of celebrating, I’m including the original Pear Frangipane Cake recipe as it’s pear season and I believe it is the best version of this cake. I love this cake because it impresses most guests, is easy to make, and doesn’t have a pastry crust, which is a bonus.  Also check out the blueberry version by the lovely Signorina at Napoli Restaurant Alert  as well as my raspberry version here.

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Torta di Pere, Mandorle e Amaretto. Pear Almond and Amaretto Frangipane Tart.

Ingredients

  • 125 g softened unsalted butter
  •  150 g of castor sugar
  • 4 eggs
  • 50 g plain flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 375 g almond meal
  • 2 Tablespoons Amaretto liqueur
  • Two large pears, peeled, cored and cut into thick wedges
  • 25 g flaked almonds for top (optional)

 Method

  1. Preheat oven to 180c. Grease a 25 cm loose bottom tin. Line base.
  2. Place butter and sugar and eggs in a mixer bowl and beat for 5 minutes until thick and pale.
  3. Stir in the flour mixed with the baking powder, then fold in the almond meal, followed by the Amaretto.  Pour into the prepared tin and smooth top.
  4. Arrange pear wedges over the top, pressing them down so they partly submerge. Scatter the top with the flaked almonds. ( optional)
  5. Bake for 45- 50 mins. Cool in tin.
  6. Serve dusted with icing sugar, cream or mascapone.
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Posted in Recipes, Reflections | Tagged , , , , , , , | 30 Comments

In My Kitchen, March 2015

In my kitchen are some wonderful gifts from my next door neighbour, Anna.  Anna’s bay tree is huge and enjoys a good trim if you can reach its soaring branches. Bunches of bay leaves look lovely in the kitchen but are also good for deterring moths in the pantry. A clean out is overdue and these bay leaves will be taped to the walls and under the shelves.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnna, who is Greek and 85 years old, still makes the best spanakopita and loukoumades, Greek doughnuts dipped in honey. Sadly there are no pictures as these get devoured as soon as they arrive. She also bought in a bottle of Ouzo and Sparkling wine, and a full-sized hand-woven rug that she made when she was a young woman in Greece. Beautiful gifts in return for a bit of shrub removal. Anna brings in biscuits most weeks, just because she has made them!  She has two kitchens: the pretty show kitchen that looks like it has never been used and the real kitchen out the back in the laundry, where all the serious cooking occurs. Popping in for a coffee at Anna’s place is not to be taken lightly. She serves wedges of chilled Kasseri or Kefalograviera cheese, warmed tiropitakia, honey biscuits or almond crescents dusted with icing sugar, cut and chilled wedges of fruit, chocolates, ouzo and really bad Nescafe coffee which the Greeks of Melbourne seem to favour. Although she doesn’t speak much English and I have failed to learn Greek, we get by very well and speak the same language- that of friendship and love. One day I’ll get in her back kitchen when she is cooking.

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In my kitchen are the first Clapps Favourite pears. They are an early season variety and the fruit ripens very quickly once picked. The fruit is large and tasty and don’t last long as kitchen art.

clapps favourite pear

clapps favourite pear

In my kitchen there is a fresh supply of lentils, chick peas, bulgar wheat and other dried goods from Bas Foods in Brunswick, one of my favourite shops. These go well in curries and soups and are my main source of protein and iron.

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At least once a week we eat a simple curry based on these goods which are complemented with things from the garden.

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In my kitchen there are still loads of tomatoes. I have made passsata, tomato and chilli jam, gazpacho soup and am now about to borrow a dehydrator to deal with the many baskets of little yellow pear tomatoes, Romas and the funny black blushed ones.

waiting in the kitchen. Dehydrate, kassundi or passata?

Waiting in the kitchen. Dehydrate, kassundi or passata?

Tomato chilli jam

Tomato chilli jam

Gazpacho - using up the cucumber and tomato glut.

Gazpacho – using up the cucumber and tomato glut.

I purchased these bulk tagliatelle egg pasta at Gervasi supermarket in Brunswick. Three kilo of nidi, or nests cost $10.00. They are stored in a large plastic bread bin from the bakery. These are great for 10 minute meals of pasta and garden goodness with oil and anchovy, herbs and Parmigiano. If you want to experience a real Italian vibe, the deli and butcher counters at Gervasi will transport you back to Italy in a flash. More autentico than the Mediterraneo Wholesalers.

bulk tagliatelle

bulk tagliatelle

Speaking of Italy, which I often do, I am enjoying Dominique Rizzo’s My Taste of Sicily very much. Although I have owned it for a couple of years, it has decided to take up residence in my kitchen this month. I love the vibrancy of Sicilian food: food of the sun, it works well in the Australian climate.

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Siciliani love chilli and so do I. Excess chilli dry out on the bench and will be crushed then turned into chilli oil.

chilli drying, waitig to be crushed or turned into chlli oil.

chilli drying, waiting to be crushed or turned into chlli oil.

Finally my secret ingredient for making tasty frangipane cakes. Two tablespoons for the cake and a nip for me. One also for Celia, at Fig Jam and Lime Cordial who hosts this monthly round up of world kitchens. Follow the link and enjoy them all.

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Posted in In My Kitchen | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 32 Comments

50 Shades of Bay. The Environment of Port Phillip Bay, Victoria.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAEvery summer my extended family spends time camping at Port Phillip Bay, simply known as ‘The Bay’. Geographically, the bay covers 1,930 square kilometres (480,000 acres) and the shore stretches roughly 264 km (164 miles), providing a wonderful summer playground for many Melbournians.

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We love the bay and its ever shifting moods, skies and tides. Storms are exciting; sunsets are to be witnessed and documented. The bay provides space for private reflection when melancholia descends. On hot airless nights when it’s too difficult to sleep, the shoreline affords a cooler sandy space to while away the hours. Daytime brings children and families to play and dig sand castles on the emerging tidal sand bars, older children learning how to snorkel or body surf in safe, lagoon like warm water. On gusty days, wind surfers and kite surfers arrive in vast numbers.

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Over the years, environmental concerns have been raised about the delicate nature of our beautiful bay. The EPA monitors water quality, land care groups work to protect the creeks and natural flora and fauna along the shore, old invasive practices, such as groyne installation, have thankfully gone out of mode. Bay lovers are more aware than in days gone by, about the importance of sea grasses and protection of native flora. Fish species are monitored and catch limits imposed. The bay has a healthy stock of pinkies, snapper, flathead, and whiting. Removal of shellfish such as pippies, is an offence.

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One environmental pest we would like to see removed is the Jet Ski.  Our national icon, Leunig, poet and cartoonist, puts it this way:

– Michael Leunig –

Ode To A Jet-Ski Person was written by Michael Leunig and comes from Poems 1972-2002, published by Viking

Thanks Ailsa, from Where’s My Backpack for another engaging Saturday morning travel theme, Environment.

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Musical Rewards. Ponte Vecchio.

The band sets up on the Ponte Vecchio, Firenze, waiting for small rewards from the gathering evening crowd. We were rewarded with Dylanesque sounds gently amplified along the loggia.

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Posted in Photography, Travel | 3 Comments

Risotto all’Onda for Carla.

Over lunch yesterday, I came across a new Italian expression, Risotto All’Onda. At the time, I was serving a classic Marcella Hazan rice soup, or rather a minestra which, to be truthful, was more like a wet risotto. A soup or a wet risotto, I commented, knowing that this distinction is not particularly relevant to those from the Veneto region in Italy.  Alberto, a visitor from Lombardy in Italy, then related the story of his prozia, or great-aunt, who uses her brodo (stock) rather liberally when making risotto, earning the comment ‘all’onda!!!’ in a disparaging way from her husband, who had a preference for a drier risotto. Drier risotto is the preferred style in Lombardy, Piedmont and Emilia-Romagna. It has a stickier texture and can be plated rather than served in a bowl. Alberto’s family continues to describe a wet risotto in this way, to recall their late prozio’s reaction to wet risotto, risotto’all’onda!!

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As it turns out, risotto all’ onda is a common enough term for Venetian style risotto, ‘all’onda‘ meaning that the finished product should ripple like the ocean current, yet maintain its classically creamy consistency. It should be liquid enough to make it pourable. Carnaroli or Vialone Nano rice are the preferred varieties for a wet style risotto: also using smaller pan when cooking helps to maintain the moisture.

The following recipe is an adaptation of Marcella Hazan’s Minestra di Sedano e Riso or rice and celery soup, from the Classic Italian Cookbook, 1980. I have replaced the celery with zucchini, given the continuing summer glut. The method of this soup is rather interesting, with half the zucchini pureed, adding a lovely green cremoso texture to this minestra/soup/risotto.

Minestra di Zucchini e Riso- Zucchini and Rice Soup.

Ingredients

  • 2-3 small zucchini, diced
  • 6 tablespoons EV Olive Oil
  • half small onion, finely chopped
  • 25 g butter
  • 200g rice, preferably Carnaroli or Vialone Nano
  • 500 ml of stock or one stock cube dissolved in the same quantity of water
  • 3 Tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan cheese
  • 2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley.

Method

  1. Wash the zucchini, finely dice,. Put the zucchini, olive oil and salt in a heavy base saucepan and add enough water to cover. Bring to a steady simmer, cover, and cook until the zucchini is tender. Turn off the heat.
  2. Put the chopped onion in a heavy based saucepan with the butter and saute over medium heat until pale gold but not browned.
  3. Add half the zucchini to the saucepan with the onion, using a slotted spoon. Saute for two or three minutes, stirring, the add the rice and stir it until well coated. Add all the broth.
  4. Puree the rest of the zucchini, including all its cooking liquid, with a stick blender. Add this puree to the saucepan containing the rice.
  5. Bring to a steady simmer, cover, and cook until the rice is tender but firm to the bite, around 15- 20 minutes. Watch and check that it doesn’t catch as some rice absorbs stock too quickly- you may need to add a little more to make it ‘all’onda’.
  6. Stir in the grated cheese, turn off the heat, add the parsley and mix. Serve at once! This dish should be eaten immediately before it turns too soft. Make it only just before you are ready to eat!

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I’m with Great Aunt Carla when it comes to risotto- I love it ‘all’onda’, nice and wet, rippling with little currents from the sea of broth.

 

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Sichuan Pepper Berry Oil. 花椒油

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASichuan pepper berry, in its dried form, is well known and is an exotic addition to many a dish from that province of China. Its finely ground powder forms one of the ingredients in five spice powder, along with star anise, cinnamon, fennel and cloves. Less is known about the oil that is extracted from the berry. The pepper berry, although tingling and a little hot, is not related to regular pepper or to chilli.

We came across a factory producing Chinese pepper oil, 花椒油, located in Meishan, quite by chance. We were driving back to Chengdu after one glorious week of visiting ancient historic walled cities, restored Tang Dynasty houses, Buddhist temples, mountain streams dissecting lush green jungles, as well as the ‘Big Buddha’ in Leshan and the temples of Mt Emei, when Tia asked if we would like to visit the factory.

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A big fan of the Sichuan pepper berry, I had to investigate further. This industry has thrived for more than 2000 years. In those days, the berry was harvested and the oil was extracted using these ancient wood and stone mills.

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Today, the oil is extracted in the same way as olive oil and stored in vast stainless steel vats, then bottled and shipped around the world. It is an extensive, modern factory and well worth a visit to see such an unusual industry.

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There is a quaint museum next to the factory with dioramas showing the production of this oil in ancient times, as well as kitchenalia from more recent times, including enamel ware from the Cultural Revolution, along with a restaurant.

The oil, like the berry, produces a tingling, numbing sensation on the tongue and lips: a few drops added to the top of MaPo Dofu or a Vegetable stir fry is sensational, or with noodles, ginger, brown sugar, vinegar and greens.

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I really wanted to buy a small bottle at the Hong Ya County Yaomazi Food Company but the thought of the jar breaking and leaking pepper oil over my luggage was a strong deterrent. It can be purchased in Melbourne in Chinese grocery stores but is hard to recognise. Just ask for Sichuan Pepper oil and someone in the store will find it for you. Like sesame oil, a little goes a long way.

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Travel Theme. Energy

February is the best summer month to visit the beaches in Port Phillip Bay, Melbourne. The weather brings two diametrically opposed moods, depending on how enervating or energising the heat is.  One evening, as the sun set over the bay, a group of young women danced to their own tune, leaping into the air with an abundance of energy.

Sunset dancing

Sunset dancing

 

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Happy Chinese New Year and a Cucumber Salad

Happy Chinese New Year to all in this year of the Goat! In Chinese astrology, goats are described as peace-loving, kind and popular. They can be helpful and trusting but also ‘clinging’ and resistant to change. Were you born in the following years 1931, 43, 55, 67, 79, 91, 2003, 2015? If so, it’s your year!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERACelebrating Chinese New Year here in Australia, means planning a few little dishes from that wonderful country. A refreshing salad for a hot day, Cucumber salad Yunnan Style makes use of the current cucumber and chilli glut. My addition of tuna is not traditional but transforms the salad into a light lunch. Leave out the tuna if using the salad as a side dish.

cucumbers galore

cucumbers galore

I am using my apple cucumbers as these have appeared in plague proportions. They are too seedy for most dishes, but with seeds removed, work well in this quick and easy salad.

Cucumber Salad Yunnan Style.

  • 2 medium cucumbers, peeled and seeded.
  • 2 tablespoons rice vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon of castor sugar
  • pinch of salt
  • 1-2 hot chilli, seeded and sliced finely
  • 1 can of tuna in oil, drained and flaked
  •  A little Sichuan pepper oil or sesame oil to dress
  • chopped coriander leaves
  1. Peel and seed the cucumbers, cut the cucumbers vertically then diagonally into 3 cm chunks place in a bowl. Toss with the vinegar, sugar and salt and marinate in the fridge for 30 minutes or longer.
  2. When ready to serve, add chilli slices, flaked tuna and coriander leaves.
  3. Dress with a drizzle of Sichuan pepper oil or Sesame oil.

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Additions and subtractions.

  • Add more chilli if you grow the milder variety.
  • If using small Lebanese cucumbers, use more and leave half the skin on in strips.
  • add toasted sesame seeds.
  • For a Japanese twist, add cut up thin strips of nori seaweed and dress with toasted sesame and sesame oil.
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Zuppa Estiva di Cozze. Summery Mussel Soup.

As the season reaches its peak, the tomato glut becomes a mixed blessing. I have grown tired of the early yellow varieties, enjoying this months flush of Rouge de Marmande and Roma. With a little home grown chilli, a bunch of basil, some garlic and a bag of black local mussels, a soup is born and la vita è bella, as we lunch in the garden on a still, hot day.

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Black Mussels are a sustainable and cheap seafood in Victoria, retailing for around $6.00 a kilo, and are grown in the cool clean waters of Port Arlington and Mount Martha in Victoria. They are sweet and briny, unlike their large, green lipped New Zealand cousins which tend to be fibrous and tough. Tasmanian black mussels are lovely too.

I found this summer soup in The River Cafe Book by Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers, but have made some adaptations along the way.

Zuppa Estiva di Cozze – Summer Mussel Soup. 

  • 2 kilo of mussels, cleaned
  • 100 ml olive oil
  • 3 garlic cloves, 1 chopped, 2 sliced finely.
  • 1 large bunch basil, stalks removed
  • 1 small chilli, seeded and finely chopped
  • 1.5 kilo ripe tomatoes, skinned, seeded and chopped, all juices and seeds retained
  • sea salt and freshly ground black pepper.

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  1. Heat 4 tablespoons of olive oil in a large, heavy based saucepan, add the garlic slivers, and cook gently until golden. Add half the basil leaves and the chopped tomatoes and cook, stirring over a fierce heat, until the tomatoes break up and reduce a little. This should take around 15 minutes.
  2. In another large, heavy saucepan, fry the chopped garlic in the remaining olive oil until golden, then add the mussels and a few basil leaves and the remaining, reserved tomato juice. Cover, and cook on a high heat, shaking as you go, until they are open. Remove them as soon as they open and leave to cool. Remove most of the mussels from their shells, retaining a few for serving.
  3. Reduce the mussel/tomato stock for five minutes, then strain it through muslin into a bowl. Add some or all ( to taste) into the tomato sauce. Reheat the sauce and reduce a little.
  4. Add all the mussels to the sauce, add the rest of the basil and season well.

Serve in big bowls accompanied by a simple Bruschetta.

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An unexpected surprise! The stock in step 3 is not retained in the original River Cafe recipe. It is just too good to waste. From now on, when opening mussels for any dish, I intend to use this combination of tomato juice and garlic, instead of wine, and retain a batch of stock in the freezer for another dish.

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Urban Myth.

Don’t discard those unopened mussels. The advice to “throw away mussels that refuse to open”, began in the 1970s when there were concerns over some European mussels being dredged from polluted mussel beds. This advice has been repeated without question by chefs and in many ‘how to cook fish’ cook books since then. See the following:

Local Mussels.

Local Mussels.

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