Dutch mussel season kickoff revives tradition
A convoy of 40 large trucks and delivery vans got the Dutch mussel season underway earlier this month, reviving a tradition that had lapsed for a number of years, as processors vied with each other to be the first to start the season with their own promotional events.
This year, a degree of cooperation was achieved, with no company breaking the embargo, and a party atmosphere prevailing at the opening ceremony in the mussel fishing village of Yerseke, in Zeeland.
Popular football commentator Jan Boskamp fired the starting gun to get the convoy underway, and the trucks left with a cargo of around 500,000 kilos of mussels, destined for eager customers in Belgium and the domestic market. Customer enthusiasm for the early season mussels means that two million kilos were sold in the first week.
Earlier that morning, a large crown of mussel processors and buyers, along with Dutch and Belgian media, took a boat trip on the Oosterschelde, the body of water on which Yerseke lies, where a basket of mussels was symbolically handed over to Boskamp, by mussel farmer Adrie Saaman.
As the convoy left, the party started in Yerseke, with enthusiasts from Belgium and the Netherlands gathering at long tables laid out on the water’s edge for a tasting session of fresh and marinated mussels.
A delegation of chefs and restaurateurs from Prague, capital of the Czech Republic, also attended the event, in preparation for the first celebration of "Mussels from Zeeland," as Dutch mussels are marketed. Prague Mussel Week will take place from 21 to 29 September, 2019, with top restaurants in Prague participating.
“The Czech Republic is an up and coming market, where you already see a few restaurants featuring mussels. They are also making their way into retail outlets, and this is all made possible by a good chilled distribution network. We are collaborating with Kotra Logistics, one of the largest transporters of fresh seafood, and with fresh fish distributor Hopi, whose CEO is a Belgian and professes a fondness for mussels,” Tilly Sintnicolaas of the Dutch Mussel Bureau said. “Our processors take in mussels from different suppliers in order to maintain a year-round supply, and we are hoping that we can build a strong market in Eastern Europe, so we will be following the September promotion with interest to see how much attention it generates.”
It is unlikely that Czech consumers will ever reach the consumption levels of the Belgians, whose annual purchases account for 65 percent of Dutch mussel sales.
“Eating mussels, especially with ‘frites,’ is a huge part of Belgian food culture. Mussels are definitely seen as the national iconic product, despite there being no tradition of growing mussels in Belgium,” Sintnicolaas said. “France is the second highest importer of Dutch mussels, followed by Germany, and although consumption of mussels is growing in the Netherlands, it is still very low."
Zeeland mussels are grown on the seabed in two distinct areas: 60 percent in the Wadden Sea in the north of Holland, and 40 percent in the Oosterschelde. Total annual production is around 50 million kilos. Seed is traditionally fished from specific areas, but is increasingly caught on longlines, then re-laid on the mussel beds, where it takes around two years to reach market size.
“The season generally starts with mussels from the Dutch and German parts of the Wadden Sea, where peak condition is reached a bit earlier than in the Oosterschelde. It was encouraging to see the excellent quality of the first harvest this year,” said Addy Risseeuw, foreman of the Zeeland mussel farmers.
The Netherlands has 88 mussel growers, whose sales are all recorded by the Mussel Auction in Yerseke. For many decades, all mussel sales physically took place through the auction, but contract sales direct to the processor means that fewer mussels are now put across the auction floor.
Nico van Zantvoort, head of the Mussel Auction, told SeafoodSource that his company provides a number of services to sellers and buyers, regardless of whether the transaction is through the auction or by contract.
“The most valuable service is our quality check, which includes a rigorous examination of a representative sample, in which mussels are counted, weighed, measured and cooked, to ascertain their meat to shell ratio, and the quality and visual appearance of the shells and meats,” he said. “The mussels are laid out in the sampling room for everyone to examine, and the results posted up before the sale. This allows buyers to ascertain exactly what they are purchasing, when they take part in our electronic auction."
Mussels bought at auction are generally stored on sand-free re-watering plots in the Oosterschelde, which are rented by individual processors, and dredged up when they are needed for sale. This allows the processors to hold a buffer stock to keep their many customers happy.