Chris Britton, part of the Penn Cove Shellfish harvesting crew, balances between planks while pulling in a 50 pounds of chain and mussels. Photo by Laura Guido/Whidbey News-Times

Chris Britton, part of the Penn Cove Shellfish harvesting crew, balances between planks while pulling in a 50 pounds of chain and mussels. Photo by Laura Guido/Whidbey News-Times

MusselFest harvests tastes and tourism

Annual Coupeville event set for March 3 and 4

Mussels tumble over the harvesting boat’s silver rollers in a constant bath of blue.

Eight sets of gloved hands corral them, inspect them and deem them either worthy or waste.

Mussels making the cut continue on their gastronomic journey, bound for diners somewhere in the world.

Or maybe just as far as Toby’s Tavern just around the bend.

Plucked from below the depths of a wooden raft, packed on ice and hauled away in a truck or loaded on a jet, in less than 24 hours they’ll end up as an entree atop a restaurant table.

“We only harvest what we’ve sold for tomorrow,” explains Tim Jones, farm manager of Penn Cove Shellfish, LLC. “They’ll be on a lunch plate tomorrow in Seattle or a dinner plate in New York City.

“This isn’t like fishing where we get it and then sell it. We sell it and then we go get it.”

Penn Cove Shellfish will once again take center stage March 3 and 4 during the Penn Cove MusselFest that draws thousands to Whidbey Island. Visitors buy mussel-tasting chowder tickets for $10 a piece, enabling them four samples offered by 16 restaurants.

In its 32nd year, the event is sponsored by the Coupeville Historic Waterfront Association. It gives a boost to local businesses during the slow season by showing off the region’s legendary mighty mollusks.

The two-day event features a mussel chowder tasting contest, chef demonstrations, children’s activities, boat tours of the mussel rafts, mussel-eating contest, food vendors and beer and wine tents.

“It’s a very successful event,” said Vickie Chambers, executive director, Coupeville Historic Waterfront Association. “There’s not a lot of reason to change much. But we thought, ‘How do we enhance the experience for our guests?’”

Providing alternatives to mussels and offering on-line ticket sales for Sunday are two changes.

For people not into slurping shellfish, they’ll be more of a variety of food vendors this year, Chambers said, including hot dogs, barbecue, brisket and paella.

“We feel we’re providing a good variety of food even if you’re not a mussel fan,” she said.

Going beyond all things bold, briny and blue is the goal of the Sunday only, “Heart of Coupeville” tour. Tickets sold for $10 give guests a chance to stop at seven downtown shops, each giving out free samples.

For foodies, this year’s line-up of visiting chefs is a five-star treat.

Sonebandith Souvatdy and Todd Rotkins of Tom Douglas Restaurants will be part of the hourly cooking demonstrations at the Coupeville Rec Hall both days.

Ricardo Jimenez, executive chef of The Athenian in Seattle, Robert Spaulding, executive chef of Elliott’s Oyster House, are also scheduled along with Oak Harbor’s Scott Fraser, owner/chef of Fraser’s Gourmet Hideaway.

Music has also become a MusselFest mainstay.

Johnny Bulldog Band plays at the Mussel Mingle reception Friday evening. Tickets cost $30.

The aptly named Mussel Flats will perform Saturday evening at the Waterfront Beer Garden behind the Rec Hall.

Sponsored by the festival, the Beer Garden also serves wine and tends to be a quieter corner for conversation.

The second tent, sponsored by the Penn Cove Shellfish Company, is in a new location this year at Coveland and Main, just north of Cooks Corner Park.

With live music blaring, friends meeting up and hungry and thirsty people spilling in like smelt, this is a loud crowd affair. Mussels cooked spicy Southwestern style, craft beer from Flyers of Oak Harbor, Sierra-Nevada and Seattle-Maritime and live music are featured. It’s open Saturday only from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.

All proceeds from the Penn Cove Shellfish tent benefit the Boys & Girls Club of Coupeville, and the Coupeville High School Math & Science Scholarship.

In Penn Cove, mussels cling on some 50,000 collector lines. Twenty-feet long and hanging under 42 rafts, each line can weigh up to 50 lbs.

The company grows and harvests over two million pounds of mussels per year from farms located in Penn Cove and Quilcene Bay.

It’s the oldest and largest mussel farm in the United States, started in 1975 by the Jefferds family.

Six days a week, the company’s harvesting boat hums with the non-stop operation of cleaning, debearding, inspecting, sorting and bagging the bountiful blue beauties known for their firm texture, sweet taste and meaty size.

The crew also moves like a well-oiled machine, with “front guys” lifting the long chains of mussels out of the water and dragging them into a de-clumping machine. They also occasionally throw back stuck starfish and octopus.

The quality control crew, standing four on each side of conveyor rollers, inspect the mussels for dangling beards, barnacles and cracks.

Andrea O’Brochta catches the mussels in net bags as they spill from their final chute. She also sweeps up those tossed onto the floor.

“These are all the rejects,” she said, edging them toward a hole. “They just go back home in the water.”

Chowder, chowder, chowder, of course, takes center stage at MusselFest. This year, 16 restaurants are serving mussel chowder, doled out two ounces at a time in tiny white cups.

Each restaurant receives 50 pounds of donated mussels to make vats of the stuff. Each one will serve about 2,000 ounces of chowder over two days, Chambers said.

“The only rule on the chowder is it has to have mussels in it,” she explained. “Other than that, it’s up to the restaurant what they add.”

Anxious to defend his “Best Chowder” title from 2017 is executive chef Ryan Houser of Captain Whidbey Inn.

“I’ve been looking forward to it since last year,” he said.

But there’s 15 other mussel chowder hounds on his heels steaming up their own special sauce.

“Usually the most votes for favorite restaurant do the traditional chowder,” Chambers said. “Some people do try and hit all 16 restaurants from Tyee to all the ones downtown to Captain Whidbey Inn.

“That adds up to a lot of chowder.”

Thirty-two ounces to be exact or one-quarter of a gallon.

Which is actually less than the amount that people chow down during the mussel-eating contest. That zany sight takes place at 3 p.m. both days.

“Who can eat 48 ounces of mussels the fastest is the winner,” Chambers explained. “They have to pull the meat out of the shell and eat all of it.

“The winner has to show that all the shells are empty and that their mouth is empty.

“But it only costs $5 to enter so it’s the best deal in town.”

Bold. Briny. Blue.

Burp.

Penn Cove MusselFest: 10 a.m.-8 p.m. March 3, 10 a.m.-4 p.m., March 4, downtown Coupeville. Five Sea-Tac free shuttle vans will transport people around MusselFest both days.

For event schedule: www.thepenncovemusselsfestival.com

Cookin’ in the Kettles Mountain Bike Event: www.musselsinthekettles.net

It takes many hands of quality control workers aboard the company harvesting boat of Penn Cove Shellfish to check for cracks, barnacles, defects and stringy beards. Photo by Laura Guido/Whidbey News-Times

It takes many hands of quality control workers aboard the company harvesting boat of Penn Cove Shellfish to check for cracks, barnacles, defects and stringy beards. Photo by Laura Guido/Whidbey News-Times

Penn Cove Shellfish worker Chris Britton pulls in chains of mussels grown on rafts in Penn Cove. Photo by Laura Guido/Whidbey News-Times

Penn Cove Shellfish worker Chris Britton pulls in chains of mussels grown on rafts in Penn Cove. Photo by Laura Guido/Whidbey News-Times

Mussels from Penn Cove are known for their blue sheen, sweet, clean taste and hefty size. Photo by Laura Guido/Whidbey News-Times

Mussels from Penn Cove are known for their blue sheen, sweet, clean taste and hefty size. Photo by Laura Guido/Whidbey News-Times

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