The Eclade de Moules, or the most dramatic way to cook mussels.
Updated: Aug 4
I love mussels. I love most shellfish, in fact. Scallops, oysters, lobsters, clams... if you have a hard shell and a soft body, I probably want to eat you. This is maybe true about the humans I like, too. The harder it is to get to know you, the more I will probably like you. It must be because my brother is a Cancer and I adore him. Or maybe because my mother grew up on a lake that had a fundraising clambake at the fire hall every year. I don't know what the root is, but shellfish is in my soul. As an aside, my mom's whole family eats clams with ketchup in the butter, and I gotta say you should try that method. But this article is not about clams or Cancers. No, it is about mussels.
Eating mussels is a rustic, sensual art. Queer Martha's first tip to eating mussels is to never use utensils. Utensils are only for mussel neophytes. They are completely unnecessary because mussels are utensils in of themselves. They are beautiful little elastic tweezers designed by the goddesses to help you eat their mussel friends. See, you carefully pinch the animal out of the first shell with another mussel, which creates an empty shell. You then continue to use this empty shell to pick the next mussel out of the his shell, and you repeat forever - until the mussels run out. You can continue with the same shell until you find a bigger, better shell to use as your pincher.
Queer Martha's second tip to eating mussels is about discard technique. When eating mussels you are often given a bowl to put empty shells in (the empty shells you are not using as utensils). Don't throw your shells in the bowl willy-nilly like a goddamn monster who doesn't care. You will end up with a teetering tower of shells that will be very difficult to transport away from the table without collapsing. You will look like a hot mess who can't get her life together. Everyone will be judging you. Everyone already is.
Instead, stack your mussels into each other so that the beautiful shiny black babies make a fishtail braid:
Everyone will say, "Wow, you really got your shit together. How can I be more like you?" I swear, it works every time. Also, the shells will take up less room in the bowl and in the trash, and they will not topple all over the floor when you take the bowl away from the table. It's physics, guys.
Now that you have mastered Queer Martha's tips for eating mussels, you might think you are ready to host your very own mussels dinner party. I support you whole-heartedly in this endeavor. Maybe you are thinking about boiling the mussels in some white wine. That's fine. Perhaps you are toying with the idea of mussels fra diablo. Ok. You can do that, too. But do you want to know the best, most dramatic, most delicious way to throw a mussels party? It's called:
L'ECLADE DE MOULES
SO COOL LES MOULES!!!
It's mussels fireworks!
Perhaps obviously, this is sort of an outside dish.
So, the éclade is a traditional preparation from the Charantes region of France where I went to high school. Specifically, it hales from the Ile d'Oleron/Royan area, which looks a little bit like this:
This is a region that welcomes the transition from forest to ocean. Take note of the pine trees by the beach in the photos - they'll be important later.
For a little bit of etymology - because everyone loves knowing where words come from, right? - "éclade" derives from the word that means "to arrange" in Saintongeais, the traditional language of the area. This makes sense because the mussels in the éclade are arranged in a beautiful mussel sculpture before they are set on fire.
Ok, after much introduction, here are the steps for your next seafood-themed party.
1.) Gather ingredients and tools. This is the second most difficult part of the party prep:
1 pound of mussels per person
An untreated wooden board that is large enough to hold all your mussels. Perhaps a hardware store is your best best here.
A whole bunch of dried pine needles - enough to cover all your mussels in a one-foot thick layer. Here you might need to forage in a nearby forest.
One nail and a hammer (optional, but makes step 3 easier). You can substitute a potato or stone or anything else for the nail. Eclades are all about creativity.
A fire starter (like a lighter, but feel free to get creative. Next year is the 20th anniversary of Rent, so how about old posters and screenplays?)
2.) Set up the the cooking site
Place the wooden board on legs of some sort - a fireproof table, saw horses, a bunch of rocks, whatever. Or just put the wood on the ground if you are fine with crouching.
Hammer the nail into the center of the wooden board
3.) Arrange the mussels
This is the hardest part because it is so tedious. Balance the first mussel vertically against the nail you hammered into the wooden board (or the potato, stone, etc.). The mussel's hinge can be facing up if you want to lessen the smokey-pine flavor or facing down if you want to preserve the juices. Up to you (hinge up is more common to avoid pine ash inside the shells). Balance the next mussel vertically against the first. Continue balancing all the mussels vertically against each other in concentric circles so that the support each other. Continue until they are all standing at attention.
Take pictures of this shit because your mussels will look gorge.
4.) Gently cover the mussels with about one foot of dried pine needles. Make sure the needles are evenly distributed across the shells.
5.) Set that shit on FIRE. Fan the flames to get them to spread evenly across the pine needles. The steam from the conflagration will cook the mussels, opening up their shells and allowing the tangy, piney, smokey flavor to seep into the little guys.
This step should only take 5 minutes or so.
6.) Fan the ash off of the cooked mussels and eat immediately accompanied by a dry white wine, perhaps.
There you have it! The éclade de moules! It's a super simple and dramatic way to get your shellfish on. A note - because the fire makes the shells brittle, they may crack in your hands. Queer Martha's mussel-eating pro-tips introduced at the beginning of this post will probably not work during your éclade, but don't get discouraged. Here's Queer Martha's third and final mussel-eating pro-tip: get your hands dirty. That's part of the fun.