While eating a gobbler is a Thanksgiving tradition dear to most Americans, those bold enough to go against the current might consider gobbling up some fresh mussels, picked from the cold waters of Penn Cove.
For Penn Cove Shellfish, this is the busiest time of the year, with over 40,000 pounds of mussels being sold between Monday and Thursday alone.
In 1975, the Jefferds family found in Penn Cove the perfect environment to grow Mytilus trossulus, also known as Pacific blue mussels, founding what would later become the largest mussel farm in America. Penn Cove provides nutrient-rich water that is cold and deep enough for these mollusks to thrive and become a product wholesaled internationally, according to Farm Manager Zane Malloy.
“We are well known because our mussel is very tasty and there’s good meat,” he said.
Penn Cove Shellfish produces yearly between a million and two million pounds of mussels, which are raised on underwater lines tied to the bottom of 48 rafts spread around the cove. Each raft holds about 2,500 lines that Malloy estimated yield 300 to 400 pounds of mussels individually.
It wasn’t always this successful. The pandemic hit the business really hard, especially because restaurants were open less, causing the mussels to overgrow and muscle each other out. Malloy recalled pulling out lines weighing 100 pounds and only harvesting 5 pounds worth of product. Red tides, which Malloy said happen once every few years, have also caused the farm to close for two months, but they were able to keep sales going thanks to their other location.
Every year, the farmers secure to the bottom of the rafts rows of coiled lines. It’s critical not to put the lines in too soon, as they might grow barnacles. If that happens, Malloy said, the mussels will grow on the barnacles and fall to the bottom of the sea as the barnacles die. At the dawn of the company, Malloy said, they used computer parts to hold the mussels together.
The mussels spawn between March and April, and grow to about a quarter of an inch in about two months. Once that happens, the farmers open the coiled lines, extending them to 25 feet and keeping them in place by tying the lower end to a brick on the seafloor. This gives the mussels space to move and grow without having to compete with their neighbors.
A week later, the farmers install discs specifically designed to keep mussel clumps separated so that when they are pulled out of the water they don’t collapse under the weight of the clump.
Harvest begins approximately 14 months after the start of the process, Malloy said, and the farm grows two years’ worth of harvest. The black lines are for mussels being harvested in 2023, while the orange lines are for the 2024 harvest.
During a tour of the farm, Malloy pulled a line of mussels out of the cold water. He picked a large mussel from the heavy bunch, saying it wasn’t supposed to be harvested until 2024.
“This mussel is so big, it could be harvested next week,” he said.
Malloy credited this year’s floods and early rain for the size of the mollusk, explaining that these events released a lot of nutrients into the bay.
And as the mussels thrive, so does the ecosystem. Like clams and oysters, mussels are filter feeders — meaning they absorb the “bad stuff” in the water, said Malloy, who believes there wouldn’t be as many orcas, gray whales, seals and fish in the area if the farm wasn’t there.
Mussels are harvested when an order is made to ensure freshness. When the mussels are ready for the harvest, each line is pulled out of the water by a stripping machine located on a large boat that was designed by the company. On the boat, different machines separate the clumps of mussels into individual mollusks and discard the broken ones. The mussels that are too small are reapplied to the line to allow them to keep growing, while the large ones get cleaned up.
Staff represents the last line of defense, selecting the good mussels that are then put in 5.6-pound bags and labeled before being loaded on the water taxi that takes them to the warehouse, where they are finally boxed and loaded on trucks.
Their final destination: our plates.
There are many benefits to including mussels in our diets, as they are rich in protein, iron, zinc, Omega 3 fatty acids, vitamins A and B12, and are low in fat. Plus, they just taste good.
There are many ways to enjoy these mollusks — they can be steamed in beer or wine, fried, soaked in broth or cream, served with linguine or on a piece of toast.
Malloy shared a recipe to prepare a Penn Cove mussel stew for 10 people.
4 tablespoons of olive oil
1 pound of Andouille sausage or chorizo sliced ¼ inch thick
5 cups of sliced yellow onions
3 1/2 tablespoons of chopped garlic
1 2/3 ea. halved and sliced thin fennel bulb
1 1/2 teaspoon of dried oregano
1 1/4 teaspoon of saffron threads
1 tablespoon of smoked Spanish paprika (possibly smoked)
0.8 teaspoon of ground fennel seed
0.8 teaspoon of red chili flakes
1/2 teaspoons of ground black pepper
1 2/3 tablespoon of sea salt
8 1/3 cups of water
2 tablespoons of clam base
0.8 tablespoons of orange zest
1/2 cup of orange juice
1 3/4 pounds of small Yukon gold or red potatoes, quartered
2 1/2 cups of garbanzo beans
2 ea. Poblano chili skin roasted, peeled and cut into 1-inch squares
5 pounds of Penn Cove mussels
1 3/4 cup of diced tomatoes
1 cup of chopped fresh basil
1 ea. baguette
Put the oil in a large pot, cook the sausage over medium heat until almost done, sauté the onion, garlic, salt and fennel bulb over medium heat until soft. Turn heat to low, add oregano, saffron, paprika, fennel spice, chili flakes, black pepper and cook for two minutes. Add the clam base, water, orange juice, zest, potatoes, and poblano chili. Bring to a boil and simmer, keeping it covered until the potatoes are tender. Add the garbanzo beans, tomatoes, basil and mussels and simmer, keeping covered until the mussels are open. Plate and garnish with chopped fennel fronds and serve with toasted baguette.