Pulling mussels

I first ate fave e pecorino – young broad beans still in their pods so you can peel them yourself and chunks of the salty, robust ewes milk cheese Pecorino Romano – at the trattoria Augustarello in Testaccio. It was May 2005 and I’d been in Italy for nearly two months. Following my impulsive, slightly demented, not-very-grand tour of Southern Italy, I’d paused for breath, admitted my travels might be easier with more than twenty words of comedy Italian and enrolled myself at a language school here in Rome. The school had found me a gloomy, fusty, extremely odd apartment near piazza Bologna which although detrimental for both my spirits and my sinuses, was bearable because I knew I was moving to Testaccio.

Actually I knew I wanted to move to Testaccio, having spent the day exploring this unexpectedly alluring and although fashionable, resolutely authentic quarter of Rome with my friend and curious architect Joanna. During her visit, Joanna was as eager for us to visit Testaccio’s abandoned slaughterhouse, its austere yet beautiful futurist post office, the slightly grimy but busy and dynamic iron and glass food market and the courtyards and stairwells of its public housing as she was the fountains, domes and palaces of the eternal City. This is where I want to live I decided – as Joanna urged me to enter yet another (clearly private) courtyard to take pictures of another ingenious stairwell – I just had to find a flat.

I’d go to school each morning, then most lunchtimes, head spinning with verb conjugations and the knowledge I was the bottom of the class again, I’d take the metro from piazza Bologna to Pyramide, walk up via Marmorata, turn left into via Galvani and then right into via mastro Giorgio and the heart of Testaccio. Before any serious flat hunting could be embarked upon lunch was required. It was during these slightly lonely but good days, in search of lunch, that I discovered many of the shops, stalls, bars, osteria, trattoria that I still go to everyday.

The tomato stall at the back of the market for sweet, spicy, thick-skinned pachino tomatoes which I’d wash under the drinking fountain and then eat with bread and mozzarella in the park. Vincenzo and Rita’s stall for strawberries and peas in their pods. Panifico Passi for hot pizza bianca and Foccacia. Volpetti for a piece of cheese and a slice of torta salata, Volpetti Più for a seat, a bowl of pasta e fagioli and a plate of cicoria with olive oil and lemon. The bar Linari for two cornetti and a cappuccino – I’m a great believer in breakfast for lunch every now and then. The bar Giolitti for an ice-cream and a tub of zabaione – I also believe in double pudding for lunch. Il Bucatino for spaghetti con le vongole, Da Felice for Cacio e pepe and Augustarello for my favourite lunches and lessons in Roman kitchen.

I probably leaned more Italian at Augustarello that at school, and what I learned was certainly more useful. It was here, in this simple, archetypal Testaccio trattoria, at one of the 10 or so tables that I also learned and really tasted distinct, deliciously robust, gutsy Roman cooking; carciofi alla Romanabucatini all’amatriciana, gricia, cacio e pepe. It was at Augustarello I encountered the bold, offal based cooking from the slaughterhouse days: animelle (sweetbreads), coda alla vacinara, pajata. It was at Augustarello that a tumble of long spindly fave fresco were brought to the table along with a hunk of Pecorino Romano, a stubby little cheese knife, a glass of Malvasia and I made my acquaintance with the simple, unadulterated joy that is fave e pecorino.

I consider myself quite devoted to antipasti and this is one of my favourites, both for its ritual and its unique taste. The ritual: running your finger down the side of the fave and feeling the velvety lining of the pod, popping out the first fave, easing away it’s tough outer jacket to reveal the tender, brilliant green bean, chiseling away a little hunk of pecorino. The taste of the two together: the tender, bittersweet, soft waxy bean contrasted with the salty, grainy cheese.

Talking of antipasti, all these words are a long rambling antipasti – I’m also a believer in long rambling antipasti – tasty morsels in preparation for il primo, todays recipe, a particularly good one, the one Vincenzo and I ate yesterday, Spaghetti with fresh tomato sauce and mussels.

I’ve had it in mind to make spaghetti with a tomato and mussel sauce for some time now, ever since eating a really excellent plateful at La Torricella late last summer. I’ve daydreamed of that bowl of al-dente spaghetti coated with a soft, sweet, fresh tomato sauce and studded with tender mussels, with a sea-salty kick of shellfish liquor and heat of peperoncino, the grassy flecks of parsley and oregano. It has only taken me 8 months. Actually in Rachel terms 8 months is relatively snappy.  My procrastination however, has not been such a bad thing, I don’t think this sauce would be as deliciously soft and sweet made with the tinned tomatoes that sustain us through the winter. Now’s the time, late April, early May as the first truly deep-red tomatoes with their tangle of vines appear at the market. ‘Le cozze sono buone in Aprile, il migliore’ – ‘the mussels are good in April, the best‘ promises my fishmonger smoothing down his unruly handlebar moustache. He always makes such promises. On this occasion he’s right though, inside each curved inky blue-black shell we find a curious orange creature, plump, juicy and tender.

If like me, you have mussel anxiety – I speak of shell-fish not triceps although I have anxiety about them too, although not enough to actually do anything about their decline – I have some advice. It’s good advice, from my friend Saverio: occasional fisherman, fish market pro and excellent cook.  Advice #1  – Having established a good relationship with your reputable fish monger, establish the best time of year and day of the week to buy mussels. Go early in the morning to buy them and eat them that same day. #2 – Throw away any that have a broken shell, or remain closed even after being tapped sharply with the handle of a knife. #3 – Be fearless when cleaning, soak them in plenty of cold water for an hour, then go on, pull away that funny beard, scrub away any sand or barnacles. #4 – Cook the mussels in a single layer in large, flat-bottomed pan with a tight-fitting lid. #5 – Enlist the help of an assistant to pull the mussels from the shells.

While your assistant is plucking mussels from shells and you can get on with the business of making a very simple, fresh tomato sauce. You skin the tomatoes by plunging them first into boiling water for a minute, then cold water for a few seconds, before draining them. The skins should then peel away easily. You rough chop the tomatoes. Then you sizzle some chopped garlic, chili and oregano in a little olive oil, add a glug of wine, let this bubble away before adding the tomatoes and letting things reduce and thicken for 15 minutes or so. Then you add the mussels and their intense salty liquor to the sauce.

Now all’s that left is to cook some pasta, spaghetti or linguine, in a big pan of well-salted, fast boiling water until it’s al-dente, then mix the drained pasta with the sauce and a handful of roughly chopped parsley. You serve, drizzling a little more of your best extra virgin olive oil over each bowl, you grab a fork and a corner of bread and eat.

I’ve been out-of-sorts on the kitchen lately, the imminent move and separation, so making something really good and tasty – because this is really good and extremely tasty – was especially nice. A reassuring nod from my kitchen, an affirmation from  my lunch, a humm of approval from Vincenzo.  There are countless recipes for spaghetti with tomato and mussel sauce, but this one, from The River Cafe Cookbook is, like most things from the River Cafe kitchen and the hands of Rose Grey and Ruth Rogers, truly excellent.

As we ate I muttered earnest things like ‘Mussels are lovely and not expensive‘ or ‘I don’t know why I ever worried about cleaning or cooking mussels‘ and Vincenzo nodded. We decided Spaghetti with fresh tomato and mussel sauce tastes of springtime, of warmth, of the mediterranean and the salty lick of the sea, that its a delicious whole much greater than the sum of its parts. We decided to make it again next week, our last week together in this flat.

Spaghetti with fresh tomato sauce and mussels

Adapted from the River Cafe Cookbook Two by Rose Grey and Ruth Rogers

serves 4

  • 4 tbsp olive oil
  • 1.5 – 2 kg mussels in shell, cleaned (discard any that remain open)
  • 2 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
  • 1 small red chilli, crumbled
  • 1 tbsp chopped oregano
  • 150 ml dry white wine
  • 1 kg ripe tomatoes
  • sea salt and black pepper
  • 2 tbsp chopped parsley
  • 400g dried spaghetti

Heat half the olive oil in a large, wide saucepan with a tight-fitting lid. Add the mussels in one layer – this will probably mean 2 or 3 batches – cover and cook briefly over a high heat until they all open. Discard any mussels that remain closed. Drain, keeping the liquid. When the mussels are cool, remove from the shells and chop. In a small pan reduce the mussel liquid by half, strain through a fine sieve and add to the mussels.

In another pan, heat the rest of the olive oil and add the garlic, chilli and oregano. Cook for a couple of minutes, until the garlic begins to turn gently golden then add the wine and reduce for a minute. Add the tomatoes and cook, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking, for 15 minutes, until reduced. Add the mussels, juice, salt – be cautious, the mussel juice will be salty – pepper and parsley. Keep sauce warm.

Cook the spaghetti in plenty of well-salted fast boiling water until al-dente. Drain. Add mussel sauce and stir.

Divide between 4 warm serving plates drizzling a little more of your best extra virgin olive oil over the top. Eat.

If all goes well, I will get the keys to my new flat on the 2nd of May. I will then pull other mussels as I heave my large, confusing muddle of belongs across Testaccio and up two flights of stairs. It’s a nice flat, on via Marmorata with windows opening onto via Antonio Cecchi. It’s filled with light. Me, I’m filled with excitement and terror, great sadness and hope at the thought of moving. As always, thank you very much for the companionship here.


Filed under pasta and rice, rachel eats Rome, sauces, Shell fish, spring recipes, tomatoes

39 responses to “Pulling mussels

  1. Lovely story and delicious dish. Good luck with the move!

  2. this looks beautiful. you are brave to share so much. wishing you a calm week, good luck with your brand new start, rachel.

  3. Great news that you have found a flat, I look forward to becoming acquainted with your new table and worktops. I have said it several times but I do wish you would write a book, I love your tales of life so very much. Good luck with the move.

    • rachel

      I too look forward to the new worktops – as yet there are none,it’s all very unfurnished so look forward to some floor shots. The table is coming with me so that will be familiar. Oh and thank you x

  4. Diana

    Rachel, I made your farfalle with peas and asparagus, and it was wonderful! I added prosciutto and a dollop of ricotta and it was both comforting and refreshing. I think I’ll be making this one, too, as the last tomatoes of the season are here now.

    I am glad your new flat is filled with light, and I hope your days are also.

    • rachel

      Thank you. So glad you made the farfalle with peas and asparagus, yes, it is so nice with ricotta, that was our lunch last Thursday. I also want to try it with some goats cheese so will update accordingly.

  5. laura

    Ben tornata. I, too, have become addicted to reading your posts and it’s a lovely Pasquetta treat to find you here today. In bocca al lupo galore per tutto.

  6. Sometimes life is the best teacher, and always when food is involved. Mussels with white wine and pasta is a favorite of mine, but only when I eat out. Living far from a coastline, I have no skills with cooking mussels. Some day I will try.


    • rachel

      Brenda – I used to be so scared of mussels then one day, with no pressure or guests I took the plunge. I was amazed how easy it is. Cleaning is a bit of a fuss, but no harder that scrubbing stubbon new potatoes. I think this is useful http://www.bbc.co.uk/food/mussel.
      Go on pull some mussels….

  7. I really like your description “slightly lonely but good days”. I’ve had such days. Enjoy your new light filled flat. Good light makes all the difference. Take care, Denise

  8. suz

    Good luck with the move. I’m glad you’ve found a wonderful place and I look forward to seeing your new countertops & tables (and maybe a lovely chair on which to balance bowls of fresh fruit next to a door!)

    We’re just beginning to get tomatoes here in San Francisco & I have a lovely farmers market with a stall selling fresh clams/mussels/oysters. I think I will be hitting them up next weekend to make this dish… I’ve been loving anything that tastes of the sea lately.

    • rachel

      The chair is coming, I think it might need to go by the window. There is very little other furniture so the chair will feature strongly in future posts. I may also have to sleep on the chair.
      You and me both, I think a salty lick of the sea is good for the spirits. Luck accepted happily.

  9. Such a lovely post.
    Best of luck with your move!

  10. Renee

    This looks so delicious. I absolutely love reading your blog. Your stories and recipes are wonderful.

  11. This looks gorgeous. Your description of the mussels and fresh, sweet tomatoes makes my mouth water. I can’t wait to give this a try!

  12. Rosemary

    Thank YOU for being back here in this space! Your entries are always a joy to read. I’m wishing you the best of luck with your move- can’t wait to see what you’ll cook in your new place.

    • rachel

      Thank you Rosemary. I can’t wait to cook in my new place too although I have a feeling it might be toast for a while….

  13. Hi Rachel
    I have a cheeky ask…I and my husband are coming to Rome in July and I wonder if you could recommend a nice restaurant – not expensive or too posh but nice with really good food. We are staying at the Hotel Parlamento which I don’t think is a million miles away from where you are. I’d be most grateful 🙂

  14. Hi Rach, I loved reading about your early days discovering these beautiful foods, learning the language while experiencing them. so, on to this new, light-filled flat with your table and chair and keen eye and deft hands; we look so forward to what you’ll be cooking up next. all best wishes, nancy

  15. A light-filled apartment can do so much for one’s spirits. Glad you found a place. I’m hoping the move goes well too. Change is always scary for me, but many times it yields happy situations. I love your posts.
    I am very afraid of mussels. I hope some day I will be brave enough to try them. I know I’m really missing out. If only I had someone to cook them with me. You’re invited whenever you come to San Francisco.

    • rachel

      Thank you for both your words and offer…….you may well find me on your doorstep with a bag of mussels one day.

  16. best of luck this week, Rach. A change is as good as a rest, they say. Here’s hoping the light you have available in your new abode permits the same stunning shots of juvenile beans. Lovely lovely fave.

  17. Katya

    It looks like a gorgeous meal. It’s quite tempting to make it, if I could afford mussels. Maybe something else could be substituted? Also, good luck with your move. I just went through a similar situation in Ireland and now have my own place and a vague idea of how to move on. All the best to you and cannot wait to see what you are cooking next! Your writing is as lovely as your photos!

  18. Fiona

    Was in Testaccio market today but caught sight of a pumpkin – so made your pumpkin risotto. Not quite autumn I know but I was in need of comfort food…..
    So Mussels next week – I did not know they were best this time of year. Thanks to your blog I do now and will rush back to buy some… I just love that market.

  19. Best wishes with the move! I’ll be in Rome from May 25 – 29th (although there’s supposed to be a Florence day in there somewhere.) I know that we’ll be Vatican-ing bright and early on the 26th, but other than that, we’re just roaming around, the husband has never been and it’s been years since I’ve been.

    If you’re around then, let me know! I’ll buy you a drink or two. Moving is the pits, but any place filled with light will be worth it. xoxo

  20. Rachael Macry

    Hi Rachel, I had to tell you, I am not a mussel eater, but your post (and excellent photos) made me hungry anyway. 🙂

    I hope you will post a few pictures of your new place-this light you speak of, your kitchen, the view. Pretty please?

    I love this blog and I hope you never quit it.

  21. Today is moving day! I hope that it is filled with many hands to lighten the load and very few broken dishes. I can’t wait to follow along on your adventures in this new flat that is filled with light, good food, fine writing and a passionate spirit.

  22. I hope the move went well and you’re settled in. This post tugged on my heart. I hope you’re doing well.

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