If the Americans have burgers and fries and the British fish and chips, the Belgians also offer one of the best comfort pairings in the world – a potful of steamed, juicy, sweet mussels with crispy-fried potatoes occasionally dipped with freshly made mayonnaise.
Moules-frites is popular all over Europe, most especially in France, but there are a few good reasons to believe that this dish originated from Belgium. For one, the way the frites were prepared and cooked by local cooks during winter is first cited in a Flemish manuscript dated 1781. The Belgian farmers were also the first to switch from growing wheat to cultivating potatoes. Mussels are cheap and plentiful, a Belgian staple that was originally considered as commoner’s food and they’ve been paired with fried potatoes ever since.
Moules et frites can be enjoyed in fancier bistros and restaurants nowadays, though you can still enjoy the meal in a casual manner – sharing bowls of fries and pots of mussels for a group, using empty shells to take out the meat and slurp on the remaining broth. The moules are cooked in various ways, but the most common ones are: moules marinières (cooked in white wine, shallots, parsley and butter), moules nature (the most basic, steamed with celery, leeks and butter), moules à la crème (white wine stock is thickened with flour and cream), moules parquées (served raw with lemon-mustard sauce), moules à la bière (cooked in beer sauce), moules à l’ail (cooked with garlic).
Luckily I had been visiting Belgium during the post-summer months when the moules-frites season was at its peak. I didn’t waste such an opportunity, of course. I had chosen the chef’s recipe in the restaurants where I had my very first tastes of Belgian mussels and fries. And it was true then – the Belgians indeed have the best! The mussels that are generally harvested from Zeeland have amazingly bright, plump, juicy meat with a mild, delectable taste.
I remember my first Belgian moules-frites. I had a kilo pot of mussels cooked in a spicy red curry sauce, pretty Asian indeed. I so thought I couldn’t get enough that I ordered a kilo and one-fourth on my next chance, which was at this time, cooked together with codfish and tiny North Sea shrimps. Only after that another sumptuous moules-frites I confirmed that I should just stick with a kilo. Yet then, we still couldn’t get enough! Back in Switzerland and thanks to Gordon Ramsay, I decided to make one at home.
While leisurely eating moules-frites, listen to this song from famous Belgian singer-songwriter Stromae. For a true Belgian spirit, that is!
- 1 kg fresh mussels, (see try below)
- 3 large spring onions
- 1 large shallot, peeled and halved
- 1 carrot, peeled and halved lengthways
- 2 fat garlic cloves, peeled
- 1 fresh red chilli
- 1 bunch thyme
- handful flat-leaf parsley
- 100 ml olive oil
- about 150ml dry white wine (ideally Muscadet)
- 1 tsp Pernod
- 2 tbsp crème fraîche
- 2 large potatoes, about 300g each, peeled (preferably Maris Piper, King Edward or Weltje)
- about 3 tbsp plain flour
- 1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
- oil, for deep frying, (ideally light olive oil)
- 2 egg yolks
- 1/2 tsp mustard powder
- 150 ml light olive oil
- 1 tsp white wine vinegar
- Tip the mussels into a large bowl of cold water. Discard any that remain open when tapped, then drain well and pull away any ‘beards’. (Fresh mussels look black and shiny and should only smell pleasantly of the deep sea – the vast majority should be tightly closed. Avoid any that smell ‘fishy’, look dry or are mostly open.)
- Thinly slice the vegetables and garlic. Roll the chilli in your hands to loosen the seeds, then slit in half and shake out the seeds. Slice the flesh into thin sticks, then stack together and finely chop. Pick over the thyme sprigs, discarding the thick stalks, and pick the parsley leaves from the stalks. Prepare the chips.
- Place a large, heavy-based sauté pan (with a lid) on the hob and heat until you can feel a strong heat rising. Pour in the oil, then immediately toss in all of the vegetables, chilli and thyme. The thyme sprigs will crackle if the pan is hot enough. Cook for about 11/2 mins, shaking the pan and stirring the vegetables until they start to wilt.
- With the heat still on high, toss in all the mussels and shake the pan so they form an even layer. Cover with a lid and cook for another 1-2 mins, shaking the pan once or twice.
- Uncover the pan and pour in the wine and Pernod. Shake and cook for another 11/2 mins so the wine reduces by half, then cover again and cook for another min. Place a large colander over a bowl and tip the mussels and vegetables into the centre. Discard any mussels that remain closed. Fry the chips.
- Pour the strained liquid back in the pan, reheat and stir in the crème fraîche and whole parsley leaves. Check the seasoning; you may not need any salt. Return the mussels and vegetables to the pan and reheat, shaking the pan, then divide between two large soup bowls. Serve the chips and mayonnaise alongside.
Make the mayo and prepare the chips before you start the mussels. Fry the chips after you have cooked the mussels and while they are still draining in the colander, then finish the sauce.
Recipe adapted from BBC Good Food.