Making mussels fun again
The French love seafood. Domestic consumption of mussels amounted to just under 44,000 metric tons in 2010, 30,000 metric tons of which was produced in France. Nearly 23,000 metric tons was grown on bouchot poles and 2,000 metric tons on ropes suspended under longlines or tall trestles.
Mussels are also harvested from the wild and from managed beds, and imported from countries like Greece, Spain, Italy and the Netherlands. The vast majority of domestic production is of Mytilus edulis, with the larger Mytilus galloprovincialis being grown mainly in the Mediterranean.
The market in France is highly specialized, with consumers knowledgeable about regional differences in terms of production method, size, texture and taste. Fishmongers and supermarkets throughout the country sell a good selection of fresh, vacuum-packed and frozen mussels, and new season arrivals are heavily promoted. Even small quayside stalls selling local “huitres et moules” offer different types. French consumers, it would seem, are spoiled with choice.
Prized amongst mussels are those grown on bouchot poles in the English Channel and along the Atlantic coast, using a technique that dates back to the 13th Century. This produces high quality Mytilus edulis mussels with a good meat content. The “Moules de bouchot de la baie du Mont-Saint-Michel” has “appellation d’origine controlee” (controlled designation of origin) status, while others conform to a national “certificat de conformité” that sets strict production criteria and a minimum meat content of 24 percent. Consumers love and trust these mollusks.
This French penchant for bouchot mussels, which are in season from the beginning of July until Christmas, is a hurdle for market newcomers KYS Marine to overcome. Its rope-grown product from Camaret, on the Brest peninsula in Brittany, has just become available, and Corinne Raguenel is charged with placing them on the market. She already has more than 50 regular customers, including the supermarket chain Intermarche, but is finding a lot of resistance.
“One issue we had to overcome was that of mussels gaping open on the fish counter. Bouchot mussels spend half their lives out of the water so learn to shut their shells tight when exposed to the air. Longline mussels do not have the same ability, so we have developed a technique that ensures they reach the consumer in perfect condition,” she said. “We still need to persuade consumers that our mussels are as sweet and perfect as the bouchot variety, but we hope our quality will speak for itself.”
Using the slogan “Enfin une moules 100% pleine” (Finally, mussels 100 percent full of meat) and a distinctive pink and black logo, KYS Marine aims to make mussels a “fun” product and is slowly but surely making progress.
“Our company started by producing swinging baskets to enable oyster farmers to produce a better quality product, then we moved into oyster farming to prove the systems and to show customers that we knew what we were talking about. This resulted in us winning two gold medals in a national competition last year,” explained Raguenel.
“Unfortunately oysters are not thriving in France at present, with all regions experiencing ongoing high summer mortalities. Two years ago we decided to try growing mussels in the open sea, and the first crop is now ready,” she said. The company is trialing 40 longlines and will soon expand into two other sites in Brittany, with the aim of producing 1,000 metric tons per year.
For Corinne and her partners, it has been a swift but steep learning curve.
“We have learned a lot in the past two years, finding for instance, that it is better to seed our ropes in a separate location, to avoid the mixed local settlement of M. galloprovincialis and M. edulis. We also thought we could anchor the farm with large concrete blocks. But the swell and current started to move them, so we flew in an expert from New Zealand to install screw-type anchors, and this has made a huge difference,” said Raguenel. “The one thing that has not let us down is the rope imported from Quality Equipment, New Zealand, which has proved highly durable and effective.”
Business partner Christophe Callewaert, explained that small things can make a huge difference when farming in the open sea. “We noticed that the yield per longline increased from 12 [metric tons] to more than 25 [metric tons] once they were correctly moored and made taught, so we were able to double production with just a small adjustment,” he said. “We still have much to learn but are confident that we can become a major player in mussels within the next few years.”