Sunday, May 24, 2009

Eating Chilean Mussels

After a somewhat discouraging look at Chilean farmed salmon last month, it has been a pleasure to discover Chile’s other aquaculture: mussels--delicious, clean, nutritious, environmentally sustainable and socially responsible seafood.

Mussels have been part of human diet for about as long as we have been humanearly Homo sapiens at Pinnacle Point near South Africa's Mossel Bay on the Indian Ocean were harvesting and eating mussels 164,000 years ago (+/-12,000 years).[1]  Closer to (my) home, archaeological sites on the Chilean Island, Chiloé, provide evidence that by 6,000 years ago blue mussles (choritos, Mytilus sp.), giant mussels (choros zapatos, or maltones, Choromytilus chorus) and ribbed mussels (cholgas, Aulacomya ater) were part of the diet of early Chileans [2], just as they are today.

Marine mussels (there are also freshwater mussels) inhabit the tidal zones of temperate oceans around the world, many on rocky shores exposed to breaking waves.  When covered with water they feed by filtering plankton from the surrounding sea, and when exposed by low tides their shells close tightly maintaining liquid within.  Reproduction occurs in the spring when males release clouds of sperm and females release eggs into the surrounding water.  The offspring pass through several free floating larval stages before settling, then attach to a firm object with byssal threads—their “beards.” [3]
Mussel cultivation in Chile has his its roots in the 1940s, when over-exploitation of both cholgas and choros zapatos in the area between Valdivia and Chiloé let to experiments in collecting mussel larva for replenishing natural beds.  By the 1960s these efforts resulted in Chile’s first farmed mussels and by 1982 production had expanded to commercial scale with production of over 1,600 metric tons.[4]  By 2003 production had increased to 60,000 tons, of which 85% was exported, 90% to Europe[5]
The cultivation process begins with the collection of “seed” mussels on stationary nets where they attach themselves.  By midsummer they are ready to be transferred to ropes suspended vertically in “long line” cultivation systems, where they remain to “fatten” for 12 to 24 months, before being harvested.

Artisanal mussel production (photo Germán Henriquez)

Processed mussels, largely for export, are frozen or canned, but in Chile fresh mussels are available in supermarkets, fish markets and local ferias, below for 800 CLP/kg ($.65/lb).

So, are you ready?  Begin by buying a kilogram or so of choritos [6], which will yield about 200 gm of mussel meat.  Refrigerate them (don’t put them in water) until you are ready to cook—2 or three days should be okay.  Then scrub with a stiff brush or scouring pad and scrape off any attached barnacles with a knife.
Discard any that don’t close (or at least move) when tapped or that are broken. 

For your first meal I suggest you serve them simply—steamed as a first course  with Chilean salsa verde.  Bring an inch or so of water to a boil in a pot large enough to hold the mussels.  Dump in the mussels, cover the pot, and cook for about 10 minutes; almost all will open, but any that don’t need not be discarded if they look okay. Serve on the half shell.  For the salsa verde, mince onion, parsley and a touch of green chile and add abundant lemon juice and a little oil.  Pick up a half-shell, add a bit of sauce, and eat.  A crisp, cold sauvignon blanc will be a great complement.
You will find that they have a nice marine taste, without being strong or “fishy” and that the salsa verde provides a nice tang.
And while eating them, you can consider their virtues: 
  • Nutritional--100 gm. cooked mussels have about 170 calories, 24 gm. of protein and 4.5 grams of fat, including .5 gm of omega-3 fatty acids; pretty good on all counts.[7]  And being low on the food chain, they accumulate very low quantities of organochlorine contaminants.  Nutritionally they are excellent.
  • Environmental—Farmed mussels require no feed, and as filter feeders, leave the sea water cleaner than they find it.  Some sea floor sedimentation occurs below farm sites, but at low levels. The industry web site, AMICHILE, notes that mussel farming..
…is largely innocuous and produces minimal impact if adequately maintained, as dictated by industry norms and the rules which regulate it, but we are concerned about some difficulties in maintaining a clean environment, fundamentally the visual impact produced by our cultivation, our use of low-technology flotation systems and the existence of dirty beaches.[8] 
Long-line mussel cultivation in Chiloé

          Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood watch says:.
Farmed mussels are an excellent choice because they are farmed in an environmentally responsible way. …As with other related species – scallops, oysters and clams – farming methods for mussels are environmentally sound. Mussels do not rely on fishmeal or fish oil as part of their diet. Diseases are rare, so antibiotics and chemicals are not necessary, and the aquaculture operations often benefit the surrounding marine habitat. [9]
  • Economic--Mussel cultivation employs 6,500 workers and had exports in 2003 of $25.7 million.
  • Social—The industry has a reputation for social responsibility.  I encountered no criticism of its safety record or relations with employees, and it seems to be a force for good in the communities, manly in Chiloé and the adjacent mainland, where it operates.
     The industry vision, explained in their website,
…has centered on the development of a industry that is sustainable and responsible--to its workers, consumers, the environment, and the social milieu in which it grows--an industry prepared to satisfy the growing world demand for food, especially protein, produced under the highest standards of sanitation and quality.
We consider the association [AMICHILE] an effective tool for the achievement of these common objectives, and for consolidating the interests and concerns of  producers and the challenges that they face and will face this vigorous industry.”[10]
Finally, you can consider how you will prepare them next time.  Two of my favorites are mussels and sausages with rice (photo), and mussels provincial (recipe card) but every culture seems to have mussel recipes.  A few are available at and, and even today’s New York Times has a Southeast Asian Mussel Salad.

[1] Early Humans Wore Makeup, Ate Mussels. Associated Press, Oct. 17, 2007.  On line at
[2] Legoupil, Dominique. Recolectores De Moluscos Tempranos En El Sureste De La Isla De Chiloé: Una Primera Mirada (Early Shell Gatherers In The Southeastern Part Of Chiloé Island: Preliminary Results) Magallania v.33 n.1 Punta Arenas ago. 2005.  On line at
[4] Asociación Gremial de Mitilicultores de Chile, AMICHILE, on line at
[5] Yokota, Eugenio.  The Mussel Farming in Chile, July 3-5 2005. On line at
[6] In cholgas and choros zapatos females have dark-colored flesh, with a somewhat stronger taste; try choritos first.
[7] Mollusks, mussel, blue, cooked,  Mytilus edulis L. (data for M. chilenis not available)
on line at; Exler J, Wehrauch JL. Provisional table on the content of omega-3 fatty acids and other fat components in selected foods. U.S.D.A., Human Nutrition Information Service, HNS/PT-103, 1988 on line at


  1. Hola Jim,

    Really enjoy dipping in to your blog especially the seafood and asado parts.

    I have a quick question regarding mussels. A few months ago I bought a kilo of choritos from Mercado Central in Santiago. I cooked them in white wine and onions (basically a quick steaming). They were very tasty but also very gritty. Is it best to buy farmed mussels as they tend to have less contact with the sea bed and therefore less grit and if so how do you know if they have been farmed or are wild? Is there anything you can do to remove the grit e.g. soaking in water before cooking?

    I look forward to your future blog entries.



  2. Gareth,

    Thanks, glad you enjoy the blog; it’s interesting to write too.

    I haven’t had any gritty mussels yet, though I’ve bought large and small, with clean shells and covered with barnacles. I just scrub them with a brush under running water, scrape off the barnacles, and remove the beards—but that’s what you did too, so I suppose I’ve just been lucky. The classic advice for mussels and clams is to soak them in water (with or without added salt) with some cornmeal which is supposed to either irritate them into expelling the sand, or “feed” them and make them fat. I found nothing authoritative on the web, but lots of anecdotal advice. Take a look at and

    As to knowing whether they are farmed or wild, I’d ask the fish vendor. I usually buy mine from same booth at the local feria. They know me and give me good advice. I’ll ask about soaking too.


  3. Thanks Jim. I will give the cornmeal a try next time.


  4. Jim,
    I enjoy your blog. Check mine out, if you wish. I've another take on Chile and mussels, but cited some of yours. Next time I'm in Chile we should meet.

  5. Tanks, Dave. And your post on mussels and Neruda is great; I'll look forward to hearing from you when you are in Chile again.

    best wishes

  6. hi,Jim, thanks for sharing !i am frim singapore.
    i just bought some mussels that come from Chile.
    they taste quite sweet. are they farmed in very
    pristine-clean clean environment ?
    i am a bit worried about seafood coming from countries that we are not familiar. Your article
    is reassuring & most appreciated.

  7. Thanks Felice, I'm glad you enjoyed them.
    They come from clean cold waters in southern Chile, many from the Island of Chiloe. Google "choritos Chiloe" or look a Chiloe on Google Earth to see for yourself.

    Best wishes

  8. Hi. In our local supermarket (Manila, Philippines) i saw packs of frozen Chilean Mussels. The sticker on the pack says "Production Date: Feb 2014". Is this still safe to eat? Will this be still tasty? Appreciate your comments ....

    1. There is usually a "use by" date on Chilean products, but either this didn't have one or you didn't find it. But it they remained frozen they should be OK. I recently had some in the US that came cooked in their shells and sealed in plastic. I followed directions punctured the plastic in a few places and microwaved for 7-8 min. They were very good, not over cooked and relatively inexpensive, as these things go. Under $5 for enough for two meals in a pasta or paella with other ingredients.

  9. Thanks for this post, Jim. I try to buy local where I can here in Australia but the stores only carry imported frozen mussels. I know they are an excellent low impact food so I was trying to decide if it was responsible to buy imported, reading your blog and seeing that the industry in Chile is mostly a force for good is quite a relief!


Sorry, no more anonymous posts. I was getting too much spam. Email me (see my profile) if you would like to comment and have no account. Jim