SWEETER, stronger and smaller than ordinary mussels, traditional moules de bouchot are a protected brand, grown on ropes strung from wooden posts (bouchots) in the sea. They are prized because, being grown off the sea bed, they are grit and barnacle-free. They are also said to contain more meat and have a cleaner flavour.
Legend claims that they were ‘invented’ by an Irishman or, according to other accounts, a Scotsman, Patrick Walton, who was shipwrecked in 1235 in the Bay d’Aiguillon.
Having decided to stay and catch seabirds for a living, he erected wooden poles on the beach and strung nets from them. When mussels started growing on the poles he realised it would be easier to produce mussels than catch seabirds and thus bouchot mussel farming was born.
In 1954 modern aquaculture took off in the bay of Mont-Saint-Michel and today bouchot mussels are grown all along the north-west coastline of France. Two types of mussels are cultivated, Mediterranean mussels, Mytilus galloprovincialis and blue mussels, Mytilus edulis, which are also rope-grown in many other parts of the world.
French moules de bouchot were the first French product to be granted Spécialité Traditionnelle Garantie (STG) status in 2013. This is an EU label which attests to traditional production methods and guarantees quality. It means that the mussels have been produced by specialists who ensure that their production methods respect the environment.
It takes a year to cultivate a mussel. They are born in the spring and caught on fine horizontal ropes. In June, these fine ropes are transferred to frames until the end of August when they are finally wound in spirals around wooden posts on the shore. To prevent crabs invading the ropes, the base of each post is protected by a skirt. During the winter and the following spring, the spirals of rope are protected by storm netting, inspected for correct growth, the shells are cleaned, and they are protected from predators.
The following summer, they are finally harvested by amphibian boat, or tractor, washed, sorted and packed to be sent off to market.
Stéphanie Sevestre and her brother Gilles Salardaine are the eighth generation of her family to produce mussels, and the third generation to do so in the Mont-Saint-Michel bay. “My grandfather moved here from Charron, in the Aiguillon Bay in Charente-Maritime, in 1958 with his eight children,” she said. “And he was the first mussels producer to set up business here in Mont-Saint-Michel.”
In due course, the business was taken over by her father, the youngest in the family, and then by Stéphanie and Gilles. “I love working here, it’s idyllic,” she said. She deals with the business side of things for their company La Vivière and her brother goes out in the boat. “The Bay of Mont-Saint-Michel is ideal because the water isn’t polluted, the high tides keep it clean and the water isn’t too hot. Mussels are very sensitive to pollution.”
The firm has diversified too and now also produces lobster, crab, shellfish and edible seaweed.
“Moules de bouchot have now been awarded an AOP (Appellation d’Origine Protégée) which guarantees their geographic origin – and therefore their quality,” she explained.
“Because the taste of the mussels is dependent on the seawater here, the AOP guarantees their quality.”
She says that moules de bouchot from Mont-Saint-Michel are smaller than ordinary ones, sweeter, and have a stronger taste. “There are about 60 producers working in the bay now and we’re doing well,” she said.
The seafood sector is thriving because as people eat less red meat, they are turning to fish and seafood, which are nutritious, low calorie, low fat, and fully of healthy trace minerals and trace elements.
And they are not expensive, either. She adds: “Moules are becoming one of France’s favourite foods.”