Writing about food is challenging. How, for example, would you describe a peach to someone who’d never seen or tasted one?
It’s so hard to find the language to explain the sumptuousness of a peach – a fuzzy-coated, sweetly fragrant, summer fruit whose ripe, soft flesh yields to the mouth, whose sweet juices run down your hands and face as you bite in. A peach smells of sunshine and honey and the summer wind. In size it is like a cross between an apple and an orange – sporting a warm soft, pale orange sweater-coat, kissed with shades of pink. In texture – more akin to a plum. Peaches tastes like nectar, like honey, like flowers, like summer itself. But no matter what words you find – no matter how florid the description – a peach is a peach. Nothing but eating one actually does it justice.
Because I’m writing a manuscript about food at the moment, I’m thinking of food all the time. I’m thinking about what constitutes good food writing. The most intense writing I remember about food comes not from a cook book or food book but from Lorna Doone, a novel by English writer Richard Blackmore, published in 1869. It is set in Devon and Somerset and prominently features Exmoor, a place where once, long ago, I spent a Christmas holiday in an old B&B that dated back to the Domesday Book.
Lorna Doone is a romance novel set amongst the moors. But for me – it was a book about hunger and desire. About highwaymen and treachery. About love. About larders stocked with ale and platters of cooked sausages and chops. The entire time I was reading Lorna Doone – I was hungry. I wanted to walk into an old English home in the moors and raid the pantry. I wanted to eat great plates of meat and potatoes washed down by ale. I wanted to hear the thunder of horses hooves on the moors and feel the damp, cold seeping into corners while I huddled in front of the fire. The crazy thing is that I scarcely eat meat and I rarely drink beer and I live in a home with central heating. Blackmore’s evocative language transported me to a different world. That is the power of really good writing.
How then to explain these mussels?
Last summer, I holidayed on Whidbey Island, off the Pacific Northwest Coast. It was one of those places where I felt I could stay forever. I’ve had that feeling in other places – in Yorkshire – my ancestral home. In super rugged Tasmania, Australia where I stood entirely alone on a beach tens of kilometres long with the nearest landfall was thousands upon thousands of nautical miles away. I had that feeling in Queensland and in the South of France. And in Devon where Lorna Doone is set. But I especially had it on Whidbey Island where the grasses rolled into the sea and the boats in the harbour beyond fished for mussels and ling. In one direction – the mighty Pacific Ocean that covers one-third of the earth’s surface. In the other – the rugged mountains of the West Coast. One night I sat in a fabulous old biker bar with a sea view – eating seafood plucked from the Sound just beyond the window only hours before. It was a meal I’ll never forget. I had a glass of Oregon white. I had a bowl of mussels and a basket of grilled bread. And while I ate, the sun went down over the Sound.
These mussels – they taste of the sea. Of wind and waves. Of garlic. Of white wine. They are delicate. Slightly chewy yet tender. An edge of heat. The garlicky, white wine broth is perfect mopped up with a grilled baguette.
I love that this meal – and this beautiful place – is seared into my memory.
Spicy Mussels in Garlic and White Wine
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 3-4 large cloves garlic, chopped finely (but not minced)
- 1 teaspoon dried crushed red pepper flakes
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- ground black pepper
- 1 1/2 cups dry white wine – I used Sauvignon Blanc
- 2 lemons, quartered
- 1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley
- 3 pounds fresh mussels, scrubbed and debearded
Place the oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add the garlic, red pepper flakes and salt. Cook for one minute. Then pour in the wine and bring to the boil. Add mussels, half the parsley and half the lemon. Cover pot and cook until mussel shells open, stirring once, about 6 minutes; discard any mussels that do not open. Using slotted spoon, transfer mussels to large shallow bowl. Boil broth in pot until reduced to 1 cup, about 3 minutes; season, to taste, with pepper. Pour broth over mussels. Serve with remaining parsley and lemon slices and a sliced baguette, grilled if you feel like it.