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Coupeville comes out of its shell for Mussel Festival

Come Friday, mollusk fans near and far will descend on Whidbey Island to take part in the annual Penn Cove Mussel Festival, which runs through the weekend with a variety of mussel-bound events.

The shellfisherific festival originated 15 years ago at the Captain Whidbey Inn in Coupeville, steadily growing over the years in reputation and stature to its current culinary glory. Many local restaurants now participate in the event, and hungry folks fly in from all over just to partake of Penn Cove’s acclaimed little critters.

Captain John Colby Stone, owner and proprietor of the Captain Whidbey Inn, said on Friday that people have come from as far away as Belgium to celebrate the succulent mollusk.

“When we were the only ones doing it, the town was amazed at all the people that came here,” Stone said. And the rest is history.

This year, for instance, nine Coupeville restaurants are participating in the festival’s Mussel Chowder-off competition, which for the last two years has been won by Chef Simon Bargh at Christopher’s Restaurant on Front Street.

At the Captain Whidbey Inn, the weekend is packed with all sorts of mollusk-centric events. Friday features a brewmaster’s mussel farmers dinner with special guest Mike Hale of Hale’s Brewery in Portland. There will be mussel cooking demos on Saturday, and on Sunday the Jefferds brothers of Penn Cove Shellfish will give a presentation on mussel farming. Stone will also be giving mussel farm tours on Saturday aboard his sailing vessel the Cutty Sark.

Of course, the main thing is the eating, and the Inn’s head chef, Steve Clarke, has some pretty diverse, even exotic, mussel-related dishes planned, including Italian mussel soup, Cajun mussel pasta, mussel pizza and mussel cakes, along with more traditional dishes like steamed ginger or Stone family mussels.

Clarke said that on festival weekend, the Captain Whidbey Inn goes through about 150 pounds of mussels, pulled fresh as fresh can be from the nearby waters of Penn Cove.

“Few people get them as fresh as we get them here,” said Stone. “We get them fresher than anywhere in the world.”

Mussel Fest freaks as interested in quantity as quality can enter the mussel eating contest, in which one must gulp as many of the things as one can in a mere minute. Stone said that folks typically go through about 2 pints in that span of time. He added that, since last year’s champion has moved from the area, the contest is wide open this year. Consider it a challenge.

“We take this stuff seriously, but not too seriously,” Stone said. “It’s all in good fun. If you’re not having fun, you’re not doing it right.”

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