Rope to Plate: A Swedish mussel adventure

11th August 2015

Words: Killian Fox
Camera & Edit: Yousef Eldin
Produced by: Adam Park

It’s a blazing hot morning in early July and we’ve just arrived in Ljungskile, a small seaside town an hour north of Gothenburg, to see a man about some mussels. Janne Bark is the owner of Musselbaren, a restaurant in an old clock tower by the harbour whose name more than hints at its specialisation. He also farms his own organic mussels out there, in the clear, cold waters of Sweden’s west coast. The fishing industry around these parts has been in decline for many years and Janne’s operation, which draws visitors from all over the country, is his attempt to breathe some life back into the local economy.

As well as farming mussels and dishing them up, Janne regularly takes diners out in a boat to harvest their meal at the source. So before our own mussel feast, we asked Janne to guide us through the whole process from rope to plate.

The boat is already puttering away by the pontoon when we arrive and our host is climbing into his oilskins. It’s too hot for a jacket so he sticks with his t-shirt, which bears the slogan “Moules on the Rocks”. It’s clear from the outset that for Janne, a genial man in his early 50s, work is a pleasure not a chore and the focus of his labours still retains its appeal. “I eat mussels a couple of times a week and never get tired of them,” he grins. “In fact, the more I experiment with them, the better they get.”

Across from us is a big island called Orust, dotted with holiday homes, which shelters Ljungskile from the sea beyond. We nose out into the channel and turn right, heading north along the coast. The water is beautifully calm. On the shore, legions of bathers have gathered to make the most of the sun, which is putting in a rare appearance in this otherwise cloudy summer.

The journey to the mussel beds takes about 40 minutes. As we motor along, Janne tells us that life on the sea is relatively new to him. “I loved seafood growing up but I was raised on a farm inland and meat was more familiar to me.” Before starting his mussel business, he ran a company that made equipment for the construction trade. He’s still involved with that company, but, he says, “I wanted to do something that had a connection with food and with the environment. And I wanted to do a job that gave me greater contact with people. I always had an idea to be a farmer, though I didn’t immediately think of becoming a sea farmer. But here I am!”

Seafood has always been a big deal in this part of Sweden. For centuries, the West Coast was known for its herring fisheries, but the industry peaked in the late 18th century (aka the “great herring period”) and has been in decline ever since. Today the main focus is on shellfish and tourists flock here for the so-called “big five”: shrimp, lobsters, langoustines, mussels and oysters. “The freshness and cleanliness of the water and the cold temperature is perfect,” says Janne. “Maybe not for swimming, but it’s perfect for raising seafood.”

Up ahead, the mussel beds are coming into view, marked by clusters of blue oil drums bobbing around in the water. As we draw closer, we see that the drums are arranged in lines running perpendicular to the current, connected by a thick rope. Using a small crane at the front of the boat, Janne lifts one of the ropes to reveal a series of straps stretching down towards the sea floor. Soon the mussels appear, great clumps of blue-black shells clinging to the straps.

“They are hanging above the bottom so we don’t risk to have any sand or mud in the mussel,” says Janne. Still, each clump is thickly encrusted with seaweed and barnacles and crawling with tiny worm-like creatures that feed on the seaweed. The mussels come away easily enough from the straps and Janne fills several baskets with our catch. He transfers them to a large metal basin and we set about cleaning the shells with a hose and scrubbing brushes.

“There are a lot of myths around mussels,” Janne tells us as we scrub. “When people prepare them, they insist on all the mussels being closed and whole. This is meant to indicate whether they are alive or not. People also say you should throw away mussels that haven’t opened after you’ve cooked them. For me, it’s all comes down to smell: if they smell like the ocean, they’re okay. And if a shell hasn’t opened after it’s cooked, just pry it open, you’ll find a delicious morsel inside.”

We are getting hungry now, so once the mussels are sufficiently scrubbed Janne turns the boat around and we motor back to Ljungskile, full speed ahead.

On the way back, we ask if mussels are seasonal and Janne shakes his head. “They’re filtering the water and growing all through the year,” he says. “They come into contact with different kinds of algae at different times which affect their taste – a spring mussel and an autumn mussel can taste quite different.”

Back on shore, eager to taste these midsummer mussels, we haul the baskets up to the restaurant’s deck and Janne lights the gas under an enormous hot-plate, which he refers to as a “morberg pan”. Once it’s hot enough, he adds butter, onions, garlic, chilli flakes and some chopped vegetables. He deglazes the pan with white wine before adding the mussels and covering them with a lid.

“We cook mussels for much longer here than other places,” says Janne. “In France they say that when the shell is open they’re good to eat, and if you overcook them they get chewy. For me though, it’s the reverse. The French way sounds like you’re eating a half-raw oyster. Cooking them for longer – an extra 10 or 15 minutes – gives them a very nice texture and a lot of flavour.”

Presented with the evidence in a bowl, topped with an intense Roquefort sauce and served with bread and an ice-cold beer, it’s hard to disagree. Janne’s mussels are rich, succulent and deeply flavourful. The longer cooking time yields another significant benefit: when the cooking liquids reduce, they form a savoury crust. Janne scrapes some off and gives us a taste – it’s pure umami. Were he to package this tomorrow and sell it as an ingredient, it would be a massive hit.

A big group is just about to arrive so Janne says his goodbyes and hurries off, leaving us to finish our lunch on the deck. For a few more precious minutes we bask in the midday sun, gazing out across the unruffled surface of the water and thinking of all that delicious marine life slowly accreting on a series of ropes dangling just above the sea floor. Then we finish our beers, get in the car and head back to Gothenburg.

For more info on Musselbaren and Janne’s mussel safaris, click here


“I cook my mussels much longer than the French do. The flesh of the mussels becomes much more tender, more delicious. With the French method, what you are often tasting are mussels that aren’t cooked through.” – Janne

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Serves 4 big appetites


3kg blue mussels
100ml rapeseed oil
A knob of butter
2 medium onions, finely chopped
4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
A large pinch of dried chilli flakes
2 sticks of celery, finely chopped
2 carrots, finely diced
A large pinch of sea salt
400ml white wine
2 bunches flat leaf parsley, chopped
A handful of parsley to garnish

The dressing:

100ml fish stock (or, even better, heavily reduced broth from cooking discarded mussel shells)
200ml double cream
100ml sour cream
200g Roquefort cheese


Wash and scrub the mussels clean. Throw away the ones that are broken.

For the dressing, bring the fish stock to a gentle simmer, then add the creams and stir in the crumbled cheese until it is completely melted. Then take off the heat and put to one side.

In a large pan, heat the oil at the highest temperature and add the butter, onions, garlic, chilli flakes, carrots, parsley, celery and salt.

Before the mix starts to colour, add the wine and let it reduce for a couple of minutes. Then add the mussels, cooking on a high heat until the mussels start to open.

Cover the pan and continue to cook on a high heat for at least 10 minutes, then spoon the Roquefort dressing over the top as required (it’s a pretty strong dressing so taste it as you go). Serve the mussels in a suitable bowl or straight out of the pan.

Garnish with a little parsley and serve with a good aioli and fresh baked bread.

Have it with apple juice, white wine or, as Janne suggests, a glass of dark, luscious porter.

Posted 11th August 2015

In Video


Words: Killian Fox
Camera & Edit: Yousef Eldin
Produced by: Adam Park

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