Saffron Mussels Mariniere Recipe

Saffron Mussels

After posting a few thoughts on sustainable seafood and how each of us can make a difference, it grew apparent that one proactive way food bloggers can help, beyond spreading the word and trying to make responsible choices themselves, is to offer recipes featuring those varieties of fish or shellfish that are more eco-friendly.

This happens to be the very premise of Teach a Man to Fish, an event created by Boston writer Jacqueline Church to raise awareness about this issue. If you’d like to play along (you don’t need to have a blog), you have until the end of October to do so; check Jacqueline’s blog for more details.

Update! Here’s the event round-up.

Why did I choose to feature mussels? Well, for starters, farmed mussels* are in the YES! column of my pocket seafood guide. (Get yours today!) What’s more, they are in season now and until the end of winter, and, although delicious, nutritious, and easy to prepare, most people find them a tad intimidating — live mollusks and all — and therefore do not place them very high on their must-cook list.

For the longest time, I myself didn’t really understand mussels.

I didn’t enjoy the flavor, or the texture, or the sticky juices that run down your wrists when you eat them, and I just didn’t see the point. When Maxence and I first started seeing each other, many springs ago, we would sometimes eat at a chain restaurant from Brussels that has outlets near most Paris cinemas, and where mussels are, of course, the house specialty. While Maxence ate a big bowl of them, I would dine on a Belgian waffle with chocolate sauce and vanilla ice cream — a win-win arrangement if I’ve ever seen one.

But then my taste buds grew up, mussels grew on me, and by the time we decided to spend a weekend in Brussels, I was 100% sold on his idea to eat mussels at every meal, and we practically did.

The mussels I buy from my poissonnier are bouchot mussels** from the Mont Saint-Michel bay, which is technically in Brittany although the Mont Saint-Michel itself belongs to Normandy, but if you wish to avoid tempestuous arguments and kicks in the shins, I suggest you not raise the matter with a Breton or a Normand, ever.

Sold under the snappy label of “Moules de bouchot de la baie du Mont Saint-Michel AOC,” these mussels are protected by the French certification of origin, and were the very first sea creatures to be granted such a status, in 2006.

This recipe is inspired by the über-classic moules marinière recipe, which has you cook live mussels in a broth of dry white wine with shallots, herbs, butter, and a little vinegar till they give up the ghost and open wide.

I wanted to make a slightly more festive variation, so I flavored the broth with saffron (the mussel’s best friend; I buy mine for a reasonable price at Goumanyat). And because I happened to have leftover Champagne in the fridge (I know some find this hard to picture but there you are), I used it in place of regular white wine. However, you could absolutely omit the saffron and use another type of dry white wine, sparkling or not: I’ve made the recipe that way before and it is, in truth, just as good.

The easiest, and most satisfying way to eat mussels is to use one empty shell as a pair of tongs to grab and pull out the meat of another mussel. It is hence a considerate idea to provide each guest with a large napkin, and a rince-doigts, a small cup filled with warm water and a slice of lemon, in which to rinse his fingers.


* In French, mussel farming is called la mytiliculture; oyster farming is ostréiculture; shellfish farming in general is conchyliculture, which sounds like an obscure insult.

** Une moule de bouchot is a mussel that’s been raised on a bouchot, a wooden pillar around which a thick rope spirals: the mussels afix themselves to the rope, and live in and out of the water alternatively as the tide rises and recedes.

Moules au champagne et au safran (ou pas)

– one pinch saffron threads (optional)
– 1.8 kilograms (4 pounds) fresh, live mussels, about 2.5 liters (see note)
– 15 grams (1 tablespoon) butter
– 4 small yellow onions, about 250 grams (9 ounces), finely minced
– 1 clove garlic, finely chopped
– 240 ml (1 cup) dry champagne, or other dry white wine, sparkling or not
– freshly ground black pepper
– 2 handfuls flat-leaf parsley, snipped
– 2 to 4 rounded teaspoons crème fraîche, or sour cream

Serves 4 as a first course, 2 as a main course.

If you’ll be using saffron, combine it in a small bowl with 1 tablespoon very hot water, and set aside.

Place the mussels in a very large bowl and fill it with fresh water. Shuffle the mussels around and against each other in the water to scrub and rinse. Lift the mussels from the water, drain, and repeat once or twice, depending on how murky the water becomes.

Have ready a large colander set over a large bowl. Take each mussel in turn and examine it. If the mussel shell is broken or chipped, toss it. Next, check that the shell is tightly closed. If it’s not, tap it with your nail; if the mussel doesn’t slowly close, toss it. Most of the mussels will have a tuft of dark grey, stringy hairs (creepy, I know) caught in the shell; pull it out with your fingers and discard. Scrub off any grime or tiny shell that may have taken residence on the mussel’s shell, and place the mussel in the colander. Repeat with the remaining mussels (you’ll get faster as you go, but you can also have someone give you a hand) and rinse one last time.

Melt the butter in a heavy pot over medium-high heat. When the butter starts to sizzle, add the onions and garlic, and cook for 5 minutes, stirring often, until translucent, softened, and sweet-smelling.

Add the saffron mixture, if using, and the mussels. Cook for 3 minutes, or until the mussels start to open, stirring them around frequently. Add the wine, bring to a simmer, and cook for 5 more minutes, or until the mussels open wide. Avoid overcooking, or the mussel meat will be a bit chewy.

Divide the mussels and broth between shallow serving bowls, sprinkle with pepper and snipped parsley, and add a rounded teaspoonful of crème fraîche to each bowl. Serve immediately, with an additional bowl for discarded shells. Any mussel that is still shut after cooking should be discarded.

Note: Buy live mussels from a trusted provider. If you’re not cooking them right away, store them in the refrigerator in a large bowl loosely covered with a kitchen towel — not in an airtight container, or they won’t be able to breathe. Some sources state that live mussels will keep that way for a day or two, but I always cook them on the day I buy them.

  • you’re right, I very rarely eat mussels, let alone cook them. Great reminder to get out of my comfort zone and try something new. :)

  • Potiron

    try using cidre and no cream!!!! c’est trop bon aussi!!!!

  • Interesting – I didn’t know mussels were that sustainable. Thanks.

    Combining the mussels with squid (also very sustainable, I believe), crayfish (ditto), and rice (very low carbon footprint from transportation), this implies that paella is a terribly sustainable food.

    I’m surprised by how you eat mussels. I’ve always just slurped ’em out of the shell, just like you would oysters, then used the largest available shell to pick up the liquid from the dish, if any – gorgeous.

  • Come to Preuilly-sur-Claise in the Touraine on the third Saturday of February if you want to restock your safran supplies with locally grown – it’s our annual Foire au Safran. You are quite right that mussells and saffron are a great combo.

  • How I love mussels! This looks fantastic. I like the addition of saffron. And farm raised mussels are so great – much easier to clean!

  • I lives close to the Oregon coast and fresh mussels and small clams are available almost year around. Your recipe sounds wonderful. Flavorful without masking the delicate taste of the shellfish.

  • I am now convinced that I will cook mussels after this tempting tutorial you just wrote. Bravo! When we took our children to Mont-Saint-Michel last summer I was torn: do I order a galette, an omelette from Mme Poulard’s, or moules frites? I opted for the galette because I’d been dying to try this Breton specialty. It WAS scrumptious. However, I wish I would have ALSO had the moules, had my stomach allowed! The omelette is, of course, quite expensive and with the exchange rate at 1.54, I couldn’t justify spending a small fortune on the beautiful-looking souflee.

    So, thanks to you, I will now remedy my regret at not ordering the moules and we’ll have an evening dinner of moules. Perhaps we’ll place a ribbon down the middle of the table and those who want to sit on the Normandie side can do so, whilst the others can opt for Brittanie, if so inclined.

  • Jenna

    I’m surprised you don’t soak the mussels in a flour-water mixture, so that they can clean themselves out, and as some claim, get plump by eating up the flour. Mussels take some time and work to prepare, but the cooking itself is very simple, and the dish is so satisfying.

  • P.S. I rather doubt it, but if you ever run across a method to whip up an omelette similar to Mme Poulard’s that doesn’t require building a fire in a Louis XV fireplace, welding your own long-handled pan, and lifting weights to have the strength to whisk the batter in a copper pot while simultaneously having the coordination to create a musical beat on the edge of the pot, PLEASE share. It would make the perfect breakfast as we segue into an evening of moules.

  • mmm. . . saffron
    I will have to make this if I can find some super fresh mussels. By super fresh, I mean within hours of leaving the water. There was an incident.

  • Wouter

    Dear Clotilde, first of all I recommend trying to cook your mussels with beer, carrot, sellery, leek, onion and garlic; the Dutch/Belgian way, raising a LOT of eyebrows on a campsite in Bretagne. (“De la bière???”). Another great way to prepare them definitely is French but with an international twist; Mouclade from La Rochelle, featuring curry, crème fraiche, cognac. I can very much recommend it, it is the most luxurious way of eathing the shelled bastards :)

  • YUM! I love them but never cook them because of the whole cleaning process. This is also why I don’t cook shrimp often. ;)

  • I’m psyched about mussel season, too! They make such a great post-market lunch. I love the saffron idea – I’m going to try that next time!

  • Lina

    The very VERY best mussel recipe and I mean every time I make this it blows people to pour about a cup of dry white wine and some water into the bottom of the pot you are steaming your mussels in with a clove of minced garlic, a generous tablespoon of dried tarragon, and a tablespoon or less of Pernod (a licorice liquor which may sound weird but it perfectly compliments the tarragon which is the perfect flavor for mussels!) Try it!

  • Rachel

    I love moules marinieres, but have never had them with saffron and champagne – can’t wait to try them this way!

    Patricia Wells has a recipe that substitutes gewurztraminer for the usual dry white wine (well worth trying) and, as Wouter mentions above, they are delicious cooked in beer.

  • David

    Ah mussells! As a kid growing up on the west coast of Canada these lovely creatures were considered garbage, not until the 70’s or maybe even the 80’s did they begin to appear in markets! All those wasted years! Zut! Alors!

  • Well, I no longer have any excuse to avoid cooking mussels, which I like very much (although it seems to go in cycles: for a while I can’t get enough of them and then I don’t want any for months…can one be so tuned in to the cycle of nature, one asks oneself? And one answers, no. ;-))

    It’s always been the direction “de-beard the mussels” that scared me off…sounds too gross, but apparently I built up a phobia for naught. “Pull it out with your fingers” you say. Sounds easy enough even for me.

    I’ve several times had mussels cooked with chorizo, delicious!

  • This delicious entry takes me back to the very first time I had moules in a tiny home kitchen in Ornans, which is near Besancon. Thank you for the stroll down memory lane and the reminder that mussels are definitely worth making soon and often. Merci.

  • Clotilde!
    je l’aime les moules (how off is that?)

    Anyway, do love them. I don’t know if your mussels are sandy there? The cultured ones we get here are usually very clean.

    Two tricks I’d offer: cornmeal in the salted water to rinse them. In fresh water they’ll close tight. In salted, which is their natural water, they’ll suck in the the water and cornmeal then disgorge the cornmeal along with any sand.

    To eat them I use the hinged shells of the first one as tweezers to pluck out the rest from their shells. You can rest them on the edge of the bowl when you need to take a sip of wine or tear some bread.

    Thank you so much for participating. This is a lovely recipe and I’m hopeful your readers will come see the wrap up so they will benefit from all the other sustainable recipes and resources and links that will accompany it.

    The Leather District Gourmet

  • PS
    leftover champagne? really?!

    mussels, oysters, clams, they’re filter feeders so they actually clean the waters rather than foul them. Very sustainable!

  • Tarfman

    “soak the mussels in a flour-water mixture, so that they can clean themselves out, and as some claim, get plump by eating up the flour”?! Methinks someone has it confused with snails here, or else, I want to know who claims that.

  • I too could eat mussels at every meal = YUM
    Maybe it’s from eating clams on the 1/2 shell as a kid that makes shellfish so delectable for me…
    I dream of eating my way through Brussels on mussels…sigh

  • This sounds delicious. But how do you pick a good mussel (look, smell, etc.)?

  • linda

    if you add a few tablespoons of flour into the basin of water while soaking the mussels, they will emit all the sand/grit and you can avoid the multiple cleaning and rinsing steps.

  • Corey

    “Methinks someone has it confused with snails here, or else, I want to know who claims that.”

    Julia Childs suggests this in Mastering the Art of French Cooking; whether or not she is correct, however, I do not know.

  • JRL

    I adore mussels, but we bought some 2 weeks ago and they were full of teeny, tiny little crabs. Anyone know why? I bought them at Champion (maybe a bad move?), soaked and rinsed them in cold water, and debearded them. The crabs were inside the mussels. For some reason, they really turned me off.

  • How comes so many people link mussel recipes with Britanny, Normandy and the Mont St. Michel in particular?

    It’s where my wife an I first had moules a la creme. So yes, those are lovely mussels in that region.

    @Lina – Thanks for the idea of using some Pernod in the broth, I’ll definitely try that one as well.

  • Yum…great mussels are such a pleasure. Unfortunately the last time I bought them they just weren’t that fresh tasting…but I’ll try again!

  • Pia

    Very nice little twists on a classic.

  • EB

    For those in the US a great resource to know what fish are *ok* to eat and when is the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Program:

  • Alas, I am allergic to shellfish so I must sit this one out. Recipe looks great though!

  • As an unabashed francophile living in the heartland of rural America, I’m thrilled to find your blog. I can purchase mussels at Whole Foods Market (2 hours away) and will try the recipe next week. I might not be able to try all your recipes, but I can dream. Thank you.

  • Catherine

    Mussels are a little bit of heaven.

  • I’ve never thought of using an empty mussel shell to grab the flesh out of another one. Brilliant!

  • Très appetissant !

  • miho

    Amagingly,delicious!Thanks,Clotilde!I thought that this champagne made the texture of the mussels much better than using usual dry white wine.
    Yes?No?If yes,why?

  • Steve C

    One of the worlds’ best meals and one of my favorites. After I read this post I spent half an hour looking at recipes for mussels. Merci Clotilde for such pleasant inspiration.

  • Anjali

    Thanks for the flavorful combination!

  • Kat

    My favorite way to eat mussels is to go camping. I pack mussels on ice in a dutch oven, then upon arrival the pot is thrown onto the campfire. The ice melts, steams the mussels, and dinner is ready ASAP. The shells, of course, are simply tossed back into the fire one by one. We do have bears right where we camp, but the shells and juices seem to char enough in the campfire that the bears aren’t attracted….yet.

  • I absolutely love mussels, and I order them often at NYC restaurants- recently,in a delicious spicy broth at The Brindle Room in the East Village. I tried to cook them myself in a classic mariner style broth, but I guess I got a bad batch and only about three of them opened. I will not be buying mussels at Whole Foods again- but I’m resolved to try again soon! Thanks for the post :)

Get the newsletter

Receive FREE email updates with all the latest recipes, plus exclusive inspiration and Paris tips. You can also choose to be notified when a new post is published.

View the latest edition of the newsletter.