Mussels: An Overview & Industry Opinions

Please note: mussels are animals, so between May through July, you may see signs of spawn. Find recommended handling tips here. Make sure to share these best practices with your customers to minimize quality concerns.

Credit: Acadia Aqua Farms

Credit: Acadia Aqua Farms

We spend a lot of time talking about oysters because that's a majority of our business, but we wouldn’t be a shellfish company without mussels. On the East Coast, PEI mussels are king. They are affordable, clean, and supply is almost year-round. Many customers have asked us for them, but we have to explain that we carry only one mussel. That mussel is the Hollander & DeKoning Dutch style mussel out of Maine. Both are Blue Mussels from the North Atlantic, but their cultivation methods differ and so does their merroir. These distinctions set them apart in flavor and in quality.

A mussel overview

There are many species of mussels in the world, and about 17 of them are edible. The most common are Blue mussels (Mytilus edulis), Mediterranean mussels (Mytilus galloprovincialis), Pacific Blue mussels (Mytilus trossellus), and New Zealand green-lipped mussels (Perna canaliculus). Like oysters, they are filter-feeders that consume algae and plankton from the water.

Mussels are available wild or farmed, but nearly 90% of the world’s mussel supply is now cultivated. Wild mussels live along intertidal zones, clinging to rocks or bottom surfaces with their byssal threads. Cultivated mussels also cling to surfaces, but growers strategically attach them to different off-bottom gear. Depending on the geographical features of an area, farmers may choose to cultivate mussels in the following ways.

Off-Bottom Methods

Longline cultivation

Longline cultivation

Bouchot cultivation

Bouchot cultivation

Raft Cultivation

Raft Cultivation

  • Longline

    This is a common method of growing mussels in PEI. Longlines attached to buoys house many strands of seeded rope that hang vertically in the water column. Socking used can protect the mussels from falling off the rope or from predation.

  • Rope-and-pole (Bouchot)

    The rope-and-pole is a popular French method because it does not need a lot of space and produces clean and uniform mussels. Seeded ropes are wound around large poles that stick into the bay or harbor. The poles are then covered in fine netting known as a socking. These ropes provide a solid area for the juvenile mussels to attach to while the socking protects them from predation and falling loose.

  • Raft

    This method is quite common and easy to maintain in crowded areas as well. Lines of socking-covered seeded ropes hang from a raft where harvesters can gain easy access to the mussels at any tide.

  • Socking

    This method uses a long, single strand of rope covered in socking material anchored at both ends by buoys. The mussels are able to move along the tide while having access to the nutrients floating on the surface. This is a method predominantly used in New Zealand.

Bottom Culture Method (Dutch Style)

Bottom culturing is a hybrid method of wild growout and cultivation. Growers collect wild mussel seed and plant them on the sea floor bed without the aid of any rope or other gear. These mussels are more susceptible to predation and weather, but in the process, become more resilient.

Advantages & Disadvantages

Like oyster farming, there are advantages and disadvantages to each method. Off-bottom methods do not need a ton of space and will guarantee higher product yield. These methods will also produce clean shells and clean meats, but their pampered lifestyle may lead to thinner shells. Potential overcrowding on ropes may also affect meat to shell ratio (1). Ultimately, the product strength will affect usage yield and shelf-life.

Bottom cultured mussels are more like wild mussels. They will have robust flavors, stronger shells, and more substantial meats. Unfortunately, like wild mussels, they can be gritty or dirty if they are not properly purged and cleaned. Farmers also need decent amount of acreage to plant and seed beds, so mussels do not get overcrowded. Aside from high operational costs, growers also have to assume the potential risk of losing product out in the open to Mother Nature.

Acadia Aqua Farms, producers of Hollander & DeKoning Mussels

Acadia Aqua Farms, producers of Hollander & DeKoning Mussels

Maine mussels or PEI mussels?

In the North Atlantic region, most of the mussel supply hails from Canada (PEI) or Maine. Mark Bittman flat out rejected PEI mussels in a New York Time’s Diner’s Journal post. It was interesting to read his perspective on why he thought PEI mussels weren’t “the best.” We are clearly partial to our Maine Hollanders, but we got curious: what mussels do others in the industry prefer?

We reached out to a few chefs in the region to hear their opinion.

Rose Thornton – Seafood Executive and former Chef

Personally, I do not think there is enough of a difference between Maine cultured mussels and PEI mussels to warrant the price difference. Are there certain times of year that Maine mussel meats are far superior to PEIs? Certainly. But at their core, mussels are a restaurant's money maker. Whether a chef chooses to put white wine, buffalo sauce, or a teriyaki ginger fume over a couple pounds of mussels, they can make more on this well-loved friend to grilled bread than they will on a 32 oz porterhouse once the steam settles.

Credit: Josephine Proul, Local 111

Credit: Josephine Proul, Local 111

Josephine Proul – Local 111

When I was first introduced to the crop of mussels from Bangs Island, I realized quickly it was not PEI in the best, most amazing way. They weren’t like the other basic mussels. The reality was that these mussels were in a category of their own: plump, briny and clean, consistent from mollusk to mollusk. I was also stoked that they were from Maine!! As a restaurant owner [who] supports and showcases as much regional products as possible, it makes these mussels approachable to the guest.

Credit: Matt Drummond, Red Paint Hospitality Group

Credit: Matt Drummond, Red Paint Hospitality Group

Matt Drummond — Corporate Executive Chef, Red Paint Hospitality Group

Though PEI [mussels] typically are very easy to clean and uniform, I prefer Maine [mussels] due to their larger size. They have more of a true flavor in my opinion. I also believe that people are slowly more accustomed to seeing Maine mussels on menus, but they are uneducated on the differences compared to PEI -- mostly the fact that Maine mussels sometimes can have that wonderful natural thing called “sand” in them, which is pretty difficult to clean out before cooking.

Credit: Paul Callahan, Brine Oyster Bar

Credit: Paul Callahan, Brine Oyster Bar

Paul Callahan – Chef, Brine Oyster Bar

It’s nice to see small-scale mussel growers making a name for themselves and taking the time to bring back rope grown mussels that are spaced appropriately. This conscious decision to put craft over money makes for a better product. The meat to shell ratio is perfect. The mussels don’t shrink out. The mussels are plumper. The flavors are a little bit more intense because of the “merroir” being more south in warmer waters.

Humans have consumed mussels for thousands of years, and they are found in cuisines all over the world. PEI, Maine, wild or cultivated, there is something warm and comforting about a large, steaming bowl of mussels. Can you tell the difference between Maine and PEI Mussels? Do you have a preference? Share your thoughts with us below.

And as always, #eatmoremussels.