MUSSELS IN TRIESTE and Mussel recipes

In the Italian language mussels are known as cozze. Those of you who have travelled to Italy or like Italian food would know that mussels are enjoyed in all regions of Italy.

Trieste, Ponte Rosso

In Trieste, mussels are called pedoci in the Triestino dialect.

The people in Trieste have a sense of humour, because pedoci (slang for the Italian word pedochi) in English are lice/parasites. The Venetians must have also shared the joke because in the Veneziano dialect they call them peoci.

As a child I was always amused by this term because parasites (head lice) were only found on those who did not bathe. Because they were contageous, all had to keep away.

In the 50 years before World War I, Trieste was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and because of’ its seaside the location it was the empire’s only international port. Following the 1954 London Memorandum, Trieste was appropriated by Italy and since 1963 it has been the capital of the Friuli-Venezia Giulia.

Mussels have been bred in the Gulf of Trieste for a very long time and were an offshoot enterprise from a successful and profitable international oyster trade. Some archaeological evidence shows that oyster farming and the exploitation of natural oyster beds were distinct features of the Roman era in various parts of the empire. Trieste was under Roman control from the 2nd century BC until the collapse of the empire.

The success of the modern oyster industry motivated the Austrian Marine Fishing and Fish Farming Society to develop new oyster cultivation systems. This indirectly increased the abundance of mussels and well before the end of the nineteen century, mussels achieved significant, economic importance.

The location of Trieste on the northern most shores of the Adriatic meant the city was always a rich mix of Mediterranean cultures along with peoples from Central Europe and the Balkans. This blend of cultures and cuisines influenced the culinary popularity of both oysters and mussels in Trieste.

Mussel farms are still abundant and popular in Trieste and in the nearby municipalities of Muggia and Duino-Aurisina. Muggia is the first town on the Istrian peninsula and the last coastal town before the border between Italy with Slovenia. Duino is a picturesque settlement on the steep Karst cliffs of the Gulf of Trieste and is famous for its castle.

I have been thinking about why the Triestini and Veneziani referred to mussels as lice/parasites. and thought that perhaps it was because early fishermen were successful in implementing the growth of mussels on poles in the seabed where oysters were bred. So, figurately, the mussels are like lice/parasites freeloading on the expanding oyster beds. The fact that mussels are also considered to be unattractive and to spread very easily, added to the impression of being like parasites.

In Trieste the most common way to cook mussels is to steam them with a little white wine and, as you would expect, parsley and garlic. What I find unusual and appetising in this regional recipe is the addition of fresh/day-old breadcrumbs to the juices to thicken the sauce. Trieste has a few old recipes that add breadcrumbs to soups as a thickening agent. I remember my mother making pappa di pane (bread soup) when my brother was a baby.

When you open mussel shells and look inside some will be orange or yellow. Orange is the female specimen, yellow is a male. Usually, the females are the tastiest mussels. It is true of fennel, too.

So why was I suddenly inspired to cook mussels?

I saw an article recently about the mussel industry in Victoria and I was excited by what I read. The mussels came from the Queen Victoria Market from Happy Tuna and are from Mount Martha.

The article was written by Benjamin Preiss and is from the May 4 issue of The Age Digital Edition.

Here are a few quotes from the article:

They sow crops over vast areas and harvest when the size and season is right. But these farmers work the sea, not the soil, feeding Australia’s growing appetite for fresh and locally grown mussels.

Thirty-five years ago this industry was tiny, with few Victorians interested in eating the shellfish. But now the industry is poised for further expansion. Some mussel farmers say they need more room to grow as the government prepares to release additional areas within existing aquaculture reserves.

Phil Lamb, managing director of the Victorian Shellfish Hatchery and partner of Sea Bounty mussel-growing company, said: ‘‘Portarlington mussels are renowned in Victoria. I’d like to see them gain a similar reputation internationally.

Lamb said the mussel sector had been increasing steadily for the past 20 years. ‘‘ It was a cottage industry, and it’s been slowly growing every year.’’ He said local mussels compared ‘‘ very favourably’ ’ to those regarded as the best internationally, including those grown in Spain and France.

Michael ‘‘Harry Mussel” Harris began working in the industry in 1993 and later started his own farming business in the water off Flinders on the Mornington Peninsula.

He described mussels as a superfood — healthy to eat and environmentally friendly to grow. ‘‘They’re the canaries of the sea,’’ he said. ‘‘If the waters aren’t good enough for the mussels and bivalves to grow, it’s not good enough to swim in either.’’

In total, there are more than 2480 hectares of area reserved for aquaculture in Victoria — most of that in Port Phillip Bay, although there are sites in Western Port and some on land.

Victorian Fisheries Authority aquaculture manager David Kramer confirmed 330 hectares of vacant water within aquaculture reserves would be released for tender in coming months.
Kramer said the authority expected the mussel industry to grow between 10 per cent and 20 per cent in coming years.
He said the government had committed to grow the industry. ‘‘We want to do everything we can to allow that industry to grow.’’

Melbourne University honorary fellow, John Ford, who specialises in sustainable seafood, said mussel farming required little physical infrastructure — all of which could be removed. ‘‘Mussel farming tends to be a win for pretty much everyone, the environment included,’’ he said.

Mussels in Trieste are cooked in simple home recipes. As a child I remember stalls that sold mussels and mussoli (other type of molluscs) on street corners, just like roasted chestnuts used to be sold.

I have several books on the cooking of Trieste and there are some small variations in the ingredients and cooking procedures, but all are cooked plain with garlic, parsley and breadcrumbs.

I like the use of bread to lightly thicken the juices. Some recipes omit the breadcrumbs and just mop up the juices with slices of bread, but I am in favour of this very ancient way to thicken liquids (rather than using flour). Some recipes do not add wine, but wine has always been popular in my cooking. I also found some recipes that suggest adding a tablespoon of tomato paste, but this does not resonate with my memories of eating mussels in Trieste. Also tomato was introduced much later in the cooking of Trieste as they were grown Southern Italy.

In some recipes the name of this dish is Pedoci a Scotadeo, (cozze alla scottadito), ie burn your finger… cooked quickly, eaten hot.

As I said, it is a very simple recipe. Adjust amounts of ingredients to your liking.

Ingredients for 4 people (two of us comfortably ate 1.5 kg)

 2 kg of mussels

4 tbsp of extra virgin olive oil, a couple of handfuls of parsley, 2 cloves of chopped garlic, black pepper, 75-100 ml of white wine

2 handfuls of grated bread – fresh or from the day before, no crusts, in fine/small pieces to give it a chance to break down

lemon wedges/juice (optional)

Remove the beards and wash mussels quickly.

In a large pan over medium heat, add about half of the extra virgin olive oil with the garlic. Stir it until it is slightly fragrant but be careful not to burn it. Add the wine and bread. Stir a couple of times to mix everything together, the wine will partly evaporate.

Add the parsley and black pepper, then the mussels .

Cover with the lid and bring to the boil. The mussels should open in about 5- 8 minutes. Don’t overcook them because no one likes rubbery mussels. Some mussels take longer to open. These are fresh healthy mussels, cook them until they too open.

Lift the mussels out and put them into a serving bowl. Check the sauce to see if the bread has broken down in the liquid. If you would prefer it to be more softened bring the liquid to the boil and stir it a little longer.

Pour the liquid over the mussels. Drizzle with the remaining extra virgin olive oil and toss well.

They need to be hot (remember? Pedoci a Scotadeo). Sprinkle a little lemon or some lemon cut into quarters.

You can see I like Mussels:

MUSSELS, three ways: in brodetto, with spaghetti and in a risotto with saffron

MUSSELS (Cozze) IN BRODETTO (Mussels in a little broth)

SPAGHETTINI E COZZE; Spaghettini with mussels


MUSSELS (Cozze) IN BRODETTO (Mussels in a little broth)

COZZE CON SAMBUCA (Mussels with Sambuca- anice flavoured liqueur)


SAFFRON RISOTTO WITH MUSSELS (Risu cu Zaffaranu e Cozzuli is the Sicilian, Riso con Zafferano e Cozze is the Italian)