Foraging for Cornish Mussels

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Hayley Bisofsky Pope
Cornwall dweller, lifestyle blogger and founder of The Little Naturalists Club
1 March 2023

Foraging on the coast turns your beach trip into a hunter-gatherer adventure and affords your visit the same purpose it gave our ancestors: to nourish and sustain.

There’s something distinctly grounding about entering into the prehistoric ritual of seeking out your food and cooking it over open flames on the beach. If you’re looking for an entry level into coastal food foraging, mussels are a great place to start. They’re easily identifiable, plentiful, sustainable and what’s more, they’re absolutely delicious.

Cornwall is especially great for mussels. The combination of deep, rocky beaches and the strong, clean ocean currants that flush away pollutants culminates in mussels taking the top spot as one of the most sustainable fish sources in Cornwall. That being said, it’s best to avoid harvesting mussels in the months without an ‘R’ in them (May to August) and this is for a few very good reasons. The first reason is because this is their breeding season, and it’s only gracious of us give them a chance to spawn before we seek our own indulgence. Secondly, as the majority of their energy is channeled into reproducing during these months, this can result in unpleasantly thin and stringy mussel meat. The final reason has to do with a phenomenon known as “The Red Tide”: when the ocean contains high concentrations of algae that are toxic when consumed by humans. Commercial fishermen are alerted when a high red tide level is registered, and there are strict measures in place that constitute it illegal to harvest when this occurs. Therefore, for safety, it is best to hold off on foraging for mussels from May to August.

If you’re interested in giving foraging mussels a go, there’s a few things to be mindful of:

  1. Check that the beach that you’re on meets a ‘good’ ranking of water quality as a minimum. Avoid beaches with rivers and/or streams running though them and if surrounded by farm land, it’s best to avoid foraging after heavy rain. These mussels were collected a short stroll from my front door on Fistral Beach in Newquay; this beach has ‘excellent’ standard of water quality. The easiest and most up to date way to understand the water quality of your beach is to visit www.goodbeachguide.co.uk and type in your location or postcode for a full break down of the area.
  2. When collecting mussels, the largest typically tend to be submerged in the water. In September and October, when the water is at its warmest, take a snorkel mask and dive down to the rocks that aren’t exposed at low tide and grab yourself some juicy molluscs. The rest of the year, a pair of welly boots and a spring or low tide is all your need to collect the big ones down in the shore break. Check tide times at www.tidetimes.org.uk or buy a pocket tide book from newsagents in coastal towns. Theres also a variety of apps that you can check out.
  3. If you don’t want to brave going beneath the waterline, try to forage for mussels that are a little bit higher up on the rocks instead. The ones found lower down are often full of sediment and sand (because of where they sit) and do not make good eating.
  4. If any of the mussels you collect are open, make sure you give them a little tap with a rock. If they don’t clam up immediately, leave them there, they’re dead. Make sure all the mussels have unbroken shells and are firmly closed. 
  5. Be sure to collect mussels around 5cm long only if possible. Any smaller means they haven’t developed enough flavour, any bigger and they become quite rubbery. 
  6. Collect clean mussels that are free from barnacles and aren’t covered in seaweed. It makes the cleaning process much easier and quicker.