Viking Recipe: Mussels with Leeks and Fennel in Ale

Here’s another authentic Viking recipe from the previously-reviewed book An Early Meal a Viking Age Cookbook and Culinary Odyssey. My review of the book is here.

This recipe is for mussels, a bivalve shellfish, and is based on archeological finds from Viking-era Dublin and Jorvik (York). The proportions described will provide two persons with a hearty bowl of the stew. It’s a simple but delicious dish: the ingredients are two pounds of mussels, one leek, one fennel bulb, a bunch of cilantro (also known as green coriander), and a 750 ml bottle of ale.

Mussels are a fairly delicate shellfish, and should be handled with some degree of care. They’re a farmed and sustainable seafood, and usually can be purchased at a very reasonable price. They should be alive when you purchase them—ask your fish monger or seller to discard any that will not close tightly when handled. Keep them on ice until ready to use, even after you get them home and place them in the refrigerator.

When ready to cook, start by scrubbing the mussels. I like to use a bowl full of cold water and a dish brush—the shock of the cold water should cause any open mussels to close. Scrub the shells lightly with the brush to remove any sand or loose debris, and pull off any “beards”—scraps of fiber, seaweed, or frayed rope that the mussels would have been clinging to in the water—extending from the closed shell.

Slice the white portion of the leek stalk into thin rounds, and finely chop the tender inner green tops. Discard the tough outer top leaves. You may need to rinse the green top portions of the leek after separating them from the solid white bottom, to remove traces of soil which often can be found in between the leaves. Also chop the fennel bulb, and a small amount of the stems, as well.

Melt two to three tablespoons of butter in a pot large enough to hold all of the mussels, and sauté the chopped leek and fennel until tender.

 

 

Add the mussels and ale, and stir to mix with the leeks and fennel. The cookbook’s authors suggest, for authenticity, using a Geuze, a Belgian ale fermented in open vats with naturally occurring airborne yeasts, which would be similar to Viking-era ale. The photograph is of the label of one such I was able to find, but if you can’t find a Geuze, you can substitute a medium-bodied modern ale. Just try to avoid one that is heavily hopped, as hops were not known to be used in Viking brewing, and will impart a more bitter taste than an unhopped ale would have.

Simmer the mussels for eight to ten minutes, stirring once or twice until they open. Putting a lid on the pot may help distribute the heat through the pot more evenly. Be careful not to overcook the mussels—they’re best when just done, but still plump and tender. While the mussels are simmering, coarsely chop the cilantro, and add it to the pot when the mussels are almost done. Taste the liquid and add salt to taste. Serve in bowls with the broth, discarding any mussels that did not open.

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