NORMANDY MUSSEL POT WITH CIDER, LEEKS & CRÈME FRAÎCHE

A trip to Normandy, France to visit World War II memorials is a bucket list experience. Breathtaking views of white cliffs and naturally formed arches, German look out bunkers, and Omaha beach combine with nearly 10,000 brilliant white-marble tombstones that glow in memory of the Americans who gave their lives to free Europe. This is a place to enjoy quietly listening to nothing more than the waves smashing against the shore, a bird cawing here and there, and the wind whistling. Nearby, where the Seine River meets the English Channel, sits the tiny town of Honfleur. With its 16th to 18th century townhouses, quaint colorful port, and the 14th century wood vaulted St. Catherine church built by ship builders, it is easy to understand why impressionist painters were smitten with this seaside village. Rent a bicycle and pedal through unspoiled scenery. Normandy's colder and more volatile temperatures than the rest of France create ideal apple growing terroir (not so great for grapes) and is the epicenter for the world's cider production--the French just seem to ferment fruit better than the rest of the world. Stop en route to sample cider (not too much or pedaling will become impossible). Continue past kilometers of fields of dairy cows that produce the milk that make the gout-inducing Normandy cuisine famous. The grand finale of any cycling adventure in Normandy, however, should be a hole-in-the-wall stop for a steaming pot of mussels made with hard cider or apple brandy, crème fraîche, and leeks. Easy to prepare, and a wonderful journey to the coast of Normandy right from home, these delicious mollusks make a quick weeknight supper, a delicious pre dinner small plate, or a lovely addition to a New England clambake.

Nota bene: Traditionally eaten in months with an "r" in it, today rope grown mussels make it possible to enjoy these bivalves year round. Purchase a hefty loaf of bread, slice it thickly (about 1/2"), drizzle with olive oil and sea salt, and grill on one side to sop of the delicious sauce at the bottom of the mussel bowl. 

Normandy Mussel Pot with Cider, Leeks & Crème Fraîche

Directions

1. Wash the mussels, scrubbing any barnacles and removing any beards. Tap any open mussel on the side of the sink. If it doesn’t close, throw it away.

2. Rinse the mussels again and put them in a large lidded cocotte with the cider, onion, parsley stalks, and peppercorns. Cover and cook over a medium heat for about four minutes, or until the mussels have opened, shaking the pot a couple of times.

3. Remove the mussels to a bowl, tossing any that have not opened. Strain the cooking juices through a fine meshed sieve to get rid of any grit left by the mussels when they opened.

4. Boil the cooking liquor and reduce it to about 2 cups liquid. Add the Calvados and cook for 2 minutes more.

5. Add the cream and the crème fraîche to the reduced liquor and cook until the mixture has thickened a little.

6. Melt the butter in a sauté pan and cook the leeks gently until soft but not colored, 12 to 15 minutes (add a splash of water every now and then to keep the leeks moist).

7. Add the sauce to the leeks and bring to the boil, then immediately turn down the heat.

8. Add the reserved mussels to heat them through and divide the mussels among soup plates.

9. Pour a bit of the cooking liquid over each bowl, scatter with parsley and some julienned strips of fresh leeks, and pass the bread for sopping up the sauce.

Serves 4 

Ingredients

  • 4 pounds mussels

  • 2 cups dry cider

  • 1 large onion, roughly chopped

  • Small handful parsley stalks

  • 16 black peppercorns

  • 6 ounces heavy cream

  • 1/2 cup crème fraîche

  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter

  • 4 medium-sized leeks, washed, and sliced into 1/4" rounds and then halved (reserve a few for garnish)

  • 1/4 cup hard cider or Calvados (apple brandy)

  • 1/4 cup parsley, finely chopped

  • Thickly sliced grilled or toasted bread, for serving