Many years ago I tasted the most amazing dish near Bordeaux – local mussels cooked in a nest of pine needles set over hot coals.
THIS SPECIAL WAY OF COOKING MUSSELS IS CALLED ECLADE.
Called Eclade, the origins of the dish sit with the mussel fishermen there who landed their boats. They arranged the mussels on a wood plank and buried them in a deep layer of pine needles that they set afire. By the time the needles were burnt, the mussels were open, their cream to orange colored meats scented with pine smoke.
I’ve never forgotten the dish and lo and behold when I climbed up from the beach at Trébeurden, in Brittany, the other morning I noticed a thick layer of pine needs alongside the path on both sides.
JUST SEEING THE PINE NEEDLES BROUGHT ME BACK
Of course, there would be pine needles – craggy maritime pines (pinus pinaster), their arthritic branches shaped by the coastal winds, lined both shoreline and roads. In short order, I had a big bagful of needles. It was no effort at all to find gorgeous Locquémeau mussels from nearby Lannion, and I was on my way.
According to tradition I should have pounded four nails in a wooden plank and used these to wedge the first whorl of mussels balanced on their edges. This would have anchored the rest of the blue-shelled mollusks until the plank was covered with them.
But I didn’t have a plank let alone nails, so instead, I built a fire. Then, when it was ready, I laid down a very thick layer – 4 to 6 inches (10-15cm) – of pine needles, strew the mussels on it and covered the whole affair with another thick layer of needles. I patiently waited for the coals to light the needles, which happened almost immediately.
YOU HAVEN’T LIVED UNTIL YOU’VE HAD MUSSELS MADE THIS WAY
They burst into flames and as the mussels heated and let loose their liquid, curls of white smoke then an entire mushroom cloud emerged from the grill. I covered it but the smoke found its way out from under the edge and out of the holes of the grill.
After about ten minutes I lifted the cover of the grill and swept back the needles, half of which were charred and half of which were heavy with steam from the mussels. Those that were dry lit right back on fire so I worked gingerly, extracting the open mussels one by one, blowing off the ashes and charred pine needles as best I could before putting them in a bowl. Surrounded, buried almost, by the heady smelling smoke I didn’t even notice the small crowd that had formed to watch. We were a group of about twenty on a spectacular terrace in Trébeurden overlooking the bay – most everyone was standing around the grill to see what on earth I was doing.
Surrounded, buried almost, by the heady smelling smoke I didn’t even notice the small crowd that had formed to watch. We were a group of about twenty on a spectacular terrace in Trébeurden overlooking the bay – most everyone was standing around the grill to see what on earth I was doing.
THEY THOUGHT I WAS CRAZY UNTIL THEY TASTED THE MUSSELS
Those among the group who know me well weren’t surprised – they’ve shared such experiences with me before. Those who didn’t know me well probably thought I was crazy.
Until they tasted the mussels. Smoky, tender, juicy, salty, marvelous. It was a messy business, (just the kind I love) and I became something of a star, if a slightly smoky one. I didn’t care about smoke or stardom though. To be able to make éclade was a dream come true, and the result as delectable as I remembered.
I will say, however, that despite the pine needles I brought home with me in the car, I’m not sure I’ll do this again anytime soon. And I’m not going to publish a real recipe for éclade because it is the kind of thing that you have to just make happen in the right environment, with the right ingredients, surrounded by the right kind of people, those who don’t mind a few chard pine needles in their food.
THERE’S NO SCIENCE, IT’S ALL ART
As in so much traditional cooking over fire, it is nearly impossible to reduce something like this to times and method. Once those flames get going and that smoke starts roiling, it’s “sauve qui peut” everyone for themselves. Nonetheless, a few guidelines below should help you, if ever you want to make your own éclade.
ECLADE – a non-recipe for the intrepid and the fortunate
If you have a grill without a cover, the mussels will take about 25 minutes to cook. If you have a covered grill, they should be cooked in about 15 minutes. Honestly, they need no seasonings at all.
6 pounds mussels
- Right before you plan to cook them, beard the mussels.
- Build a large fire in a barbecue, and when the coals are red and dusted with ash, place a very thick –about 4-inch (10cm) layer of dry pine needles on top and then pour the mussels on top of that, in a single layer. Top with another thick layer of pine needles, cover the grill leaving all vents open, and wait for the spectacle. After about 10 minutes, remove the cover and push back the top layer of pine needles, some of which will be burnt, some of which will be damp, to uncover the mussels. Remove any that are open, and push the needles back over those that are still there. Leave the cover off until the steam and smoke start going again, then replace the cover and cook for another 5 minutes. Repeat the process until all the mussels are open.
- There is little left to do but serve the mussels, with a wonderful, crisp Muscadet.
Serves 20 as a very satisfying appetizer
This might be am ambitious way to make your mussels so here’s a more classic version. Enjoy!
WANT TO LEARN MORE ABOUT EVERYDAY FRENCH COOKING? THERE ARE CLASSES HERE IN LOUVIERS AND IN THE U.S.