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 V.22 No.21 | May 23 - 29, 2013 

Food 101

Path to the Sea

Moules frites for desert dwellers

Moules frites from Café Jean Pierre.
Eric Williams ericwphoto.com
Moules frites from Café Jean Pierre.

There’s a funny scene in Richard Russo’s novel Straight Man where a lady-killer biology professor is eating a plate of raw clams with his potential conquest while his colleague looks on in wonder. “Ooooh,” the girl exclaims after each swallow. “The sea,” the professor unfailingly retorts.

These exact words will unironically leave your mouth while eating moules frites. (Pronounced “mool freet,” mussels and fries for those of you who don’t parlez Francais.) If the fries are particularly perfect, you might tack on “Oooooooh, the earth,” as well.

There are few dishes quite so evocative of both shore and field as the Belgian-originated moules frites. Bend your head over a bowl of mussels in the shell, and you are instantly clinging to a salty sea rock on some faraway beach. (I mean in a sexy mer-person way, not an awkward way.)

Anyone familiar with French bistro culture is well versed in moules frites. The traditional basic preparation is “moules marinières”—fresh, live mussels are steamed in white wine, garlic and herbs, then heaped, shell, broth and all, into a bowl and served with a baguette and a pile of hot fries on the side. Order with a clean, chilly glass of white wine.

There are few dishes quite so evocative of both shore and field as the Belgian-originated moules frites. Bend your head over a bowl of mussels in the shell, and you are instantly clinging to a salty sea rock on some faraway beach. (I mean in a sexy mer-person way, not an awkward way.)

One of the thrills of eating mussels, beside the obvious tactile and visual pleasures of extracting the soft caramel-apricot colored flesh from the shells, is the slight variance in character from one mussel to the next. Though you never want to hit a “fishy” one, some are sweeter and more luscious than others. Some taste more oceanic.

After you’ve polished off your stack of mussels, you’re left with the wine and garlic infused broth. Some people consider this the crowning glory of the moules frites experience, eating it by the spoonful or soaking it up with a baguette.

When you partake, dream of your favorite sea, or more appropriately, the Flemish coast where the combination of mussels and fries were said to have originated as winter grub for the poor (potatoes and rock-clinging shell-fish, high in protein and minerals were practically free).

All three of the moules frites outlets I visited in Albuquerque source their mussels from Prince Edward Island, which produces 80% of the world’s cultured mussels. Prince Edward mussels are considered special in the world of farmed mussels because the waters off the island are so nutrient-rich that no extra feed or additives are required for their cultivation.

You have three excellent options for a moules frites fix in Albuquerque—P’tit Louis Bistro offers six different variations on the theme ($12.50) with anise-flavored Pernod cream, Saffron cream, Roquefort, Madras (curry) and Piquant (spicy) moules in addition to the marinière. They are the only ones that serve their fries in the traditional newspaper cone.

Nearby Brasserie La Provence offers a more tangy moules marinière ($18.00) in garlic and thyme with a garnish of leeks and carrots, presented artfully as Andy Goldsworthy-esque beach debris with truffle oil fries on the side.

Last, but definitely not least, there is Café Jean Pierre, across from Century Rio 24. The location may not be the most charming, but I think their moules frites ($14.75)—extra cream, chives, thyme springs and delicate shoe string fries—wins my one-man Burque Moules-Frites-Off.

So there you have it … your moules frites cheat sheet (say that 10 times fast). There’s no time like the present to make monosyllabic exclamations over this dish; one of the guys at P’tit Louis says the Prince Edward Island mussels are currently at their prime.

 
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