July 4, 2014 6:16 pm

Recipe: mussels and potatoes

Near the Puglian coast, in not much more than a Portakabin, we sat down to the piscine feast of our lives

Having spent a couple of weeks in Calabria last year and a week in Puglia this, it has been interesting to compare these two provinces of southern Italy. The similarities between them are surprisingly few and far between. Puglia is a rich, fairly flat and abundantly fertile region, almost all of which is cultivated. Calabria has a largely barren, mountainous landscape that yields little.

Mussels and potatoes

Scroll down for method and ingredients

Serves six

Puglia is comparatively prosperous: the bourgeois enclaves of handsome and ageless towns such as Lecce and Ostuni come as a surprise to one expecting a peasant economy. Calabria is not so much peasantry as a mixture of poverty, villainy and indolence. There is little evidence of gainful employment. No buildings are ever completed above ground-floor level in order to avoid taxation. The local butcher may have sausages and perhaps beef or goat. He will sell a red wine he has bottled himself for €2 or €3, which will be potable when chilled. A good dinner might be €10, a haircut €5. The choice of vegetables is fairly meagre; my request for lemons in the supermarket was not satisfied.

By contrast, the market in Ostuni is abundance itself. Such is the fertility of the soil and the generosity of the climate that there is a huge range of vegetables in season at any one time.

In May we bought broad beans, tomatoes, melon-shaped and fragrant cucumbers, thin and snappy little French beans, pungent cicoria, flat peaches, strawberries and cherries. We could have bought more but we were well laden and even the appetites of a dozen food hacks might have been exhausted by the assault.

©Andy Sewell

The offering of meat or fish in the market was quite limited. However, the converse was the case when we were taken to an unprepossessing restaurant in the resort of Torre Santa Sabina, a 20-minute drive from Ostuni. Ristorante Miramare da Michele is not much more than a Portakabin stuck on the edge of the harbour. There were no vegetables on offer, nor any meat. Eleven of us sat down at 1pm, were regaled with surprisingly crisp, dry white and rosé wines and left the table two-and-a-half hours later after the most extraordinary piscine feast of our lives.

The opening antipasti were variations on a few themes. There were fat and juicy prawns, simply cooked and served unadorned. There were cephalopods – squid lightly grilled, octopus braised to a melting tenderness and cuttlefish cooked three ways. There were mussels cooked with chilli and tomato and the wholesome and aromatic concoction which I approximate here. There were plates of crudo comprising raw clams, mussels, oysters, whelks and sea bream, all glistening with freshness. After this huge picnic came two pasta dishes: one a spaghetti adorned with langoustines and the other an orecchiette with spiny lobster that I rhapsodised a couple of weeks ago. This was followed by some grilled bream and red mullet. No dessert was taken.

The cost of this banquet was €460, including a heroic quantity of wine – about £34 per person. I know price is an irrelevance, especially to FT readers, but all future remittances may be posted to the author, care of a poste restante somewhere on the Puglian coast.

Mussels and potatoes

A sort of healthy, inverted moules frites.

Ingredients
2kg mussels
750g maincrop potatoes
1 lemon
1 large white onion
  Olive oil
75ml white wine
  Thyme
  1. Soak the mussels in cold, running water. Pick through them, removing barnacles and beards and rejecting any broken shells. Peel the potatoes and cut into 1cm cubes. Peel the zest from the lemon and cut into very fine strips. Cover the potatoes in cold water with half a teaspoon of salt and the lemon strips, bring to the boil and simmer for 10-12 minutes. Drain in a colander.
  2. Peel and chop the onion finely. Heat two tablespoons of olive oil in a deep saucepan. Stew the onion gently for 10 minutes until soft and transparent before adding the potatoes and turning up the heat. Continue to turn the potatoes in the hot oil until lightly fried before throwing in the mussels, the white wine and a few sprigs of thyme. Cover the pan with a tight-fitting lid. Shake a couple of times and check the mussels. Once most of them are open, remove from the heat and leave covered so that the remainder open in the steam. Sprinkle with a little more olive oil and serve.

Rowley’s drinking choice

Finding dry, crisp acidity in Puglian whites remains challenging although not impossible. A Verdicchio from the Marche might be a safer bet for this robust dish.

Rowley Leigh is the chef at Le Café Anglais

rowley.leigh@ft.com

Photograph: Andy Sewell

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