Will Travel for Food

Flaming Mussels in France

Flaming Mussels in France

My ever-smiling, tennis-shoe-shod American parents were in the French seaside town of St. Palais-sur-Mer to celebrate my engagement, eager to mingle in the world that would within a year become theirs by marriage. They squeezed past the natural gate of stretching lavender bushes, fat hortensias, and leaning hollyhocks, following the ebullient voices of guests who had gathered for a "barbecue" in the lazily luxurious back yard of M. et Mme. Buffandeau. Emerging from the rampant vegetation into a long green yard anchored by an ancient stone house, they were greeted by their hosts with tiny glasses of amber or ruby Pineau des Charentes, and encouraged, "Pleeze, you must join zee crowd."

The crowd, a group of 25 or more, was amassed around a large plank supported by sawhorses, each person carefully adding mussels to a growing spiral formation laid out around the board. Although there was much laughing and conversation, my parents soon learned that there was a method to this Gallic mollusk madness. The mussels were to be set in place hinge down, so that their firmly shut shells would open upward when "barbecued."

At arm's length of the plank stood a small mountain of pine needles raked up from the sandy forest floor earlier in the afternoon. The spiral complete, with the mussels covering the board like some massive black escargot, fists of resinous pine needle were tossed upon the design until it was fully eclipsed, the fragrant mountain now rising from the plank itself. Within minutes, each corner of the covering was ignited, and within seconds, the plank was aflame. The aromatic blaze lost strength as fast as it had caught it, leaving behind a blackened mass of mussel shells gaping open, their orange contents now up for grabs. Plates were eagerly filled, fingers and faces showing new traces of soot with each bite of the sweet, warm, smoky mussels.

A scene repeated with invigorated passion each summer by my family and friends gathered in St. Palais, my parents had experienced their first eclat de moules, loosely translated as "mussel explosion." It was a barbecue they've never forgotten nor effectively imitated, as simple as it is to prepare. Something about buying mussels from the tiny oyster shacks crowding the banks of the saltwater inlet known as the Seudre and collecting pine needles from the evergreen stands soaring strangely out of the sand along the unblemished "Savage Coast," makes the eclat difficult to translate. It's a Charentais tradition -- a flavor you might be able to re-create at home, but one lacking its soul.

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