Northern Ireland has a treasure that’s the envy of the world – our divine shellfish. When you eat lobster or prawns on your holidays in France or Spain, the chances are it came from here.
At this time of year, our clean, cool waters are ideal for mussels, oysters and clams.
When it comes to sourcing fresh fish and shellfish, try to avoid the supermarkets in favour of a fish monger or one of the fish vans dotted around the country.
I got Dundrum mussels from St George’s market in Belfast last Saturday. The whole side of this historic Victorian building is taken up with fish sellers. The mussels were shiny black with a bluish mother of pearl hue - just as they should be. Scrub them clean and add to a hot pan with a dash of dry local cider. They’ll cook in a minute and a half and can be eaten straight from the pan. Dunk some bread into the remaining liquid – that’s what fast food should be like!
For my first recipe this week I’ve gone a bit retro with a mussel and chorizo vol-au-vent. These light pastries were once the darling of the party food scene. They seem to have fallen out of favour – the reason escapes me, what’s not to love about crisp pastry with a delicious creamy filling?
Cook the mussels first and then use the juice to make a creamy sauce with chorizo. Alastair Crown, of Corndale Farm, outside Limavady, makes an excellent variation of this Spanish sausage using meat from his Saddleback pigs. Spanking fresh coastal mussels and spicy sausage from nearby – a match made in heaven.
Close to the fish area in the iconic Belfast market, there’s a stand selling oysters. A young man frantically shucks the prized molluscs to keep up with the demand of locals and foreign visitors. Oysters are one of those things you either love or hate.
I grant any doubters that oyster meat is not a thing of beauty but once you acquire a taste for their saline umami you’ll never tire of them. I can vouch for this as I worked in a seafood restaurant in Rhode Island in the summer of 1990. It was run by the university I was at and one of the perks was you could eat as much of the fish as you liked and I did! Their native oysters were good but didn’t hold a candle to any you’d get here. These jewels of the sea are regarded as a luxury food but it wasn’t always the case. They used to be so prolific they were added to stews to eke it out.
Beef and oysters are a classic combination and my other recipe is for a pie that celebrates this. Oysters and stout are perfect together so the beef is slowly cooked in this first and then topped with an oyster.
The topping isn’t the traditional pie crust but instead a creamy celeriac mash. If you don’t want to eat oysters just leave them out.
Next week is National Pie Week so celebrate with an earthy, rustic beef one or a dainty chorizo one and both using our wonderful shellfish.