Some feasts are site specific This one cries for tide, wet kelp, and an inviting beach. One can buy in the mussels and firewood if necessary, though it’s more magical if that is naturally at hand as well. The rough coasts off Washington or Oregon or Maine come to mind.
Best to collect the mussels a few days earlier, and hang them overboard in a wire basket to cleanse themselves of grit. In cool northern climes one needn’t even be too picky about avoiding the months with “R” in them to pluck shellfish from the seabed. Now that September’s rolled around, that’s moot anyway, and huddling round a fire, bundled warm, and in good company can be very special.
The seaweed should be gathered day of, so that it’s still fresh and wet. One needs plenty of firewood to yield a huge pile of glowing embers. Preferably the cooking should coincide with a rising tide, so that at the end of the meal and the comradery of fire warmth, the sea quenches everything thoroughly. Sounds complicated, but in the right setting the foraging comes easily and merges with taste and memory.
Herewith, the directions straight from a local old-timer:
Mussels Beach Bake
3-4 hours, for a crowd
Consult a tide calendar, and select a day when an incoming high tide will inundate & extinguish a bonfire on the beach located 10-15 feet below the high tide line, an hour or two after cooking. Gain the consent of the local fire chief to build the bonfire.
Collect as many mussels as you wish; you can feed many mouths. Young, relatively petite mussels taste best. If feasible, rinse the mussels overboard (in the ocean) in a car for as long as a week, to wash out sand and grit and thoroughly flush the intestinal canals. Do not remove the mussels from the ocean until you are ready to cook them!
Collect a big pile of broad-leaf seaweed near the bonfire site. It is easiest to find fresh seaweed at the high tide mark after a storm or a windy day when waves pound the beach. The seaweed must be fresh, and preferably kept moist until the last moment, because water released by the seaweed is what steams the mussels. If necessary, collect the seaweed off underwater rocks from a rowboat – fill the rowboat with seaweed!
In advance, pile a large amount of firewood near the bonfire site (above high tide). Typically, you will require much more wood than you might imagine. Better too much fuel than too little! Cover the firewood with a tarp if you anticipate rain.
Start the fire a couple of hours before you plan to cook. You want a big fire (not barbecue-size) – 5-6 feet x 5-6 feet at the base, and 3 feet high to produce a thick substratum of intensely glowing coals after it has burned down substantially. Much better a fire that is too big than too small. Disregard bystanders and second-guessers who are likely to say that the fire is “too big” or “too hot.” In the course of cooking, the fire will be largely drowned, so there must be enough intensity and depth in the coals at the base to withstand a real soaking.
When the mature fire is roaring, cover it entirely with a thick layer of seaweed – about half your total supply. Scatter the mussels evenly on this seaweed bed, and then cover the mussels with the rest of your seaweed (really bury them). Work quickly and efficiently – because the fire is getting drenched.
An immense amount of steam should ensue. Monitor the condition of the mussels by peeking occasionally. When they open, serve immediately. No condiments required! The nutty taste is unimaginable, but once you’ve experienced it, unforgettable – and impossible even to approximate by any other cooking method.