In my opinion, mussels are extremely undervalued due to the over exposed small rope-grown mussels that appear on menus everywhere. Don’t get me wrong, I love mussels any way I can get them, but there are higher standards to be met. We take great pride in our relationship with the only Dutch style farm in the US, Hollander and de Köning. We sat down the Fiona de Köning to get a little bit more information on what separates their mussels from all others, and how she and her husband Theo created a family farm in Maine, miles away from where their “European” techniques have been practiced for ages.
Fiona and Theo met while Theo was sailing near London post college graduation. Theo, being the charmer that he is, started to chat with some people in the port. One man decided to offer him a nice dinner with his family, and Theo accepted. I imagine this dinner was a scene from a movie, with blurred lenses as the man’s lovely daughter and young sailor’s eyes met over the table’s centerpiece lit with warm candle light. . . but I digress. Theo is a fifth-generation mussel farmer with strong roots in the Netherlands, where the family farm is still in operation. Theo, being of entrepreneurial spirit, knew that to grow his business, he had to look outside of the Netherlands, as the industry is well saturated with little room to grow. After looking all around the globe, Theo settled on Maine, where the pristine waters were the perfect place to harbor a new crop. They started out working alongside a shellfish cooperative. It was a fleeting moment, but the company dissolved, and Theo and Fiona were again looking for a place to grow their crop. The gathered everything they had had acquired leases in the icy waters of Mt Desert Narrows and formed Acadia Aqua Farms.
The company’s start may have been slow, but it was quite calculated. Within a short time of acquiring their lease, they were able to harvest mussels for their first customer, Ben Lloyd of Pangea Shellfish Company. The initial kinks were soon smoothed out, the farm has since grown to an impressive 157 acres becoming the largest shellfish lease in the state of Maine.
The intricate process of growing their mussels is essential to the de Köning family, as it creates a unique and crave worthy product with a strict focus on sustainability. It begins by way of collecting wild seed, which helps thin out the wild population and promotes their own growth. Without the collection of seed to farm, the whole natural seed set would have a near 98% mortality rate due to overcrowding and competition for nutrients. By thinning out the wild set, the population can increase up to 12%.
The Dutch style mussel is a bottom cultured mussel. As ropes and poles create a growing environment within the water column, the bottom culture process allows the mussels to feed of a greater array of nutrients which results in a deeper and more complex flavor profile. The wild collected seed is grown directly on the sea bed floor, where it is able to gather those nutrients as well as grow stronger shells than those grown on other gear.
Once the mussels have reached the appropriate size, they are harvested off the bay bed to order and transferred to the processing facility in the water which they were raised in. At the plant, they are purged, rinsed, graded and de bearded. Once bagged a fine slurry made from the ocean water is pumped into each box and vat. As ice would just chill the outside of the bags, the slurry is made of fine ice pellets that penetrate each bag and hug each mussel, ensuring the quality and flavor. These extra steps in the process to a 98% yield, where other lesser mussels average about 80% due to sand, silt, cracked thin shells, or pesky beards that are hard to remove.
The de Könings have established their farm and consistent product in just 12 years, and now their sons are even involved in the process. The care that goes into one product is extensive, but is evident when those shells hit the plate. We are endlessly grateful for farmers like them.