I have long been a fan of bivalves — possibly my most treasured food memory of my Japanese grandmother is her clear clam soup, ushio-jiru (you can see a similar recipe here on Just One Cookbook, one of my favourite resources for Japanese recipes). It’s a testament to how much flavour you can get from just one ingredient plus water when we are talking about bivalves (ok, a small piece of umami-bomb kombu kelp and a splash of sake also help). These little shells pack a punch when it comes to flavour.
Last week I sent out my first newsletter for paid subscribers (thank you!) and it covered a topic that will inspire the next several posts, because I think this is such an important discussion to be having at the table: bivalves (oysters, mussels, clams and scallops) and how they could be considered the most sustainable protein of all, not to mention a superhero for ocean ecology. “Done right, a selective diet of seafood could even have a lower environmental impact than vegetarian or vegan diets (the important term is “selective”), according to a 2018 academic review in Frontiers of the Environment and Ecology,” writes Maria Finn for Hot House Solutions.
In Italy, one of the best bivalve experiences I have ever had hands down was in Taranto, Puglia, where even at the fish market (which is nothing more than some tables set up by the port, see below) you’ll be handed raw mussels as proof of their freshness and many of the restaurants in the old town are also fishmongers selling fresh live shells. In these places, the house antipasto is simply a platter of bivalves of every kind and more: sweet and small cozze pelose or bearded horse mussels, oysters, razor clams, sea urchins, limoni di mare or the bizarre looking, rocky 'sea squirts', also known as sea figs, clams of all kinds including warty venus (which have a much better name in Italian – tartufi di mare, or sea truffles – to indicate how prized they are), all served raw, to be eaten with simply a squeeze of lemon. Again: so much flavour, you don’t need to do much to enjoy very fresh bivalves.
I also loved the hearty mussel, bean and ditalini pasta dish that every trattoria in old Taranto served, somewhat more of a soup than a pasta dish, like pasta e fagioli but with mussels. A winning combination. You can find my recipe for it here, recreated exactly as I tasted it across Taranto, from Tortellini at Midnight.
If you hadn’t guessed, shellfish are quite a thing in Taranto and there is a good reason for it. Taranto is a curious old island city, floating between the new town, Taranto nuova, ('new Taranto', which was developed in the second half of the 1800s) on the mainland to the south. To the east is the natural bay known as Mare Piccolo, literally, “the little sea”, while to the west is the Mare Grande, the Ionian sea. This is why Taranto is often called ‘the city of two seas’ and it is what makes it such a special place for bivalves.
The Mare Piccolo is home to thirty-four citri, or fresh water springs, that surge up from the seabed, creating bubbling pools on the surface of the sea. The mixture of fresh and sea water in the bay creates an ideal environment for cultivating mussels, scallops and oysters, which has been done in Taranto since the 3rd century BC when it was an ancient Greek Spartan colony.
I’ll be sharing my city guide to Taranto soon, it’s very much off the beaten track as it’s not as pretty as the white cities on the eastern coast of Puglia, but it is for me (and for any adventurous travelers keen to explore a completely different type of Italy) a fascinating and most delicious place that is untouched by tourism.
I hope this has inspired you to cook some mussels! It certainly did for us at home, after talking about bivalves all week Marco ran out to get some mussels and clams and he made this delicious, hearty soup. Just the thing for the changing seasons, it is inspired by a very Tuscan way of preparing mussels on Elba Island. You could use just mussels or just clams, rather than a mix, you just need 1 kilogram of live shells.
Zuppa di vongole e cozze
1 kg of live, cleaned vongole and mussels (see this guide on cleaning clams)
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped (if you love garlic you could double this)
1 tablespoon tomato paste
400 gr tomato passata (we used homemade)
5-6 basil leaves
1 small dried or fresh chilli, finely chopped
250 ml unsalted fish stock (we used homemade scampi stock*)
125 ml dry white wine
A few springs of parsley, finely chopped
Cook the garlic in the olive oil over low-medium heat until fragrant and sizzling but not yet golden, add the tomato paste and let it cook a minute, then pour over the tomato passata, followed by about 250 ml water and a pinch of salt (go easy!). Turn to low heat, add the basil leaves, chilli, stock and white wine and bring to a simmer, let it cook gently, uncovered for 30 minutes.
Check the consistency of the soup -- it shouldn't be too thick but not too thin either. Taste it but I would be wary of adding much salt yet because the vongole and mussels naturally add quite a bit of brininess. Add the cleaned mussels and vongole, turn the heat up to medium high, cover and let them open, stirring occasionally, for about 2 minutes. Marco quite likes a squeeze of lemon or a splash of red wine vinegar here too.
Scatter over fresh parsley and serve with crusty bread on the bottom of the bowls or on the side. Leftovers are also delicious as a soupy pasta dish rather like the mussel and bean dish I described above.
*Scampi stock is such an easy and incredibly tasty way to reduce waste if you happen to be cooking scampi (or prawns) one day. All the heads and peeled shells that you would otherwise throw away? Just put them in a pan, toast them over medium heat for 1-2 minutes to help bring out the flavour, cover with water and simmer for about 5-7 minutes, then strain and use or freeze for later. I’d leave it unsalted for more versatility later. Great for seafood stews, soup, risotto, pasta sauces.
Note, if you would like to upgrade your regular subscription to a paid plan and have access to the full archives always, just head to my newsletter page and click on “my account” and you should see options there to change subscription plan. This explains a bit more.
In next week’s paid subscriber newsletter I’d like to open up a discussion group on favourite bivalve recipes or cookbooks to share amongst the group for some more inspiration — so get your favourite mussel, oyster, scallop and clam recipes out! I am personally craving a clam chowder, which I haven’t had since my college days at RISD in Rhode Island. Anyone?