Summer Evenings, Ancient Traditions and Moules!

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One evening last week we decided to go out for dinner. Hustling all the children into the car in a reasonably timely fashion we headed fifteen minutes down the road to the enchanting village of Mornac Sur Seudre. Listed as one of the prettiest villages in France it is something of a magnet to tourists. We weaved our way in between hundreds of likeminded people, content to stroll and soak up the atmosphere as we wandered through the narrow streets. We passed several restaurants already full and headed straight to the river and the little harbour of sorts at the very end of the village where the buildings meet the marsh.

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We weren’t quite sure what or where we wanted to eat, despite a cursory glance at one or two menus nowhere so far had persuaded us to stop and ask for a table. Instead we headed away from the throng of people, away from the charming centuries-old white-washed cottages and unique little artisanal shops and walked down a quiet little road along the small tidal channel that led out to the main river. Boats sat on the mud waiting for the tide to set them afloat again.

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Others sat on the hard and the odd yacht was tied up to an old jetty.

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The river was lined with old fishing huts; people were eating outside on attached balconies overlooking the water, sharing meals cooked in their tiny wooden cabins. Peering through open doors I am fairly sure they had electricity, but certainly no running water. I had a sense of old summer customs being enacted, generations of families enjoying a tradition of eating in a place they knew so well.

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We could see flames and smoke in the distance down the dusty road and as we drew closer we saw someone was tending several small open fires. Unsure what exactly he was doing we stopped and looked around. There were crates and crates of pine needles, some of which were being burnt and soon we realised the man in the red shirt was cooking mussels in a most unusual way. IMG_1808

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A waiter came and picked up one of the trays straight from the fire and carried it away, smoking and steaming in his hands.

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We looked closer and plucking up our courage asked some questions. This was something even our resident fisherman, Roddy, had never seen. It turned out that this is an ancient Charentais method of cooking mussels, a local tradition to the area. Moules are as French as any dish can be, but normally we think of the classic moules frites, mussels and french fries, where the mussels are usually cooked in white wine and garlic. But this was something totally different.

We learnt the pine needles impart a delicious, smoky tang to the mussels in a classic  dish called terrée de moules, roughly translated as ‘mussel bake’. The mussels are placed round-side up on large wooden trays.  About 12″ of pine-needles are piled on top and then they are set alight and left aflame until the needles have burnt to ash, a process which takes about 5 minutes.

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Once the needles have reduced to nothing but a pile of ashes these are then fanned away; leaving perfectly cooked mussels ready to eat.

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A few metres further up the lane we spotted the little restaurant, a relaxed laid-back affair built solely for the summer season.

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The menu was fantastically simple. A portion of baked mussels for 15 euros. The menu then went on to explain that in order to respect the ancient tradition, their mussels are served with garlic bread and are not prepared in advance, so a small wait is essential!

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The list of apéritifs was equally simple, and a local Charentais wine was offered in either red, white or rosé varieties; in either a standard-sized bottle, a slightly smaller pichet (carafe), or by the glass. There was even a bottle of organic red and white on offer too.

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This is exactly the type of restaurant we love; simple, fresh, unpretentious and down to earth.

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The views were spectacular and the ambience fantastic

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Some people came by boat to join in the fun, carefully easing their way to the jetty as the tide slowly rose.

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Oh, and the moules were incredible.

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Slowly the evening slipped away. We left as the sun was setting, somewhere close to 10pm. The evening hadn’t been at all what I had envisaged when we set out a few hours earlier; instead it was a million times better, a totally unexpected surprise from a small fishing village in the middle of the great marais de Seudre.

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118 thoughts on “Summer Evenings, Ancient Traditions and Moules!

  • I don’t like mussels and even though I have been to France many times I have never been tempted by moules et frite. But for this I might change my mind!

      • Just curious, is it dried or green pine straw? The dried burns so quickly, I wasn’t sure. Thanks for sharing your adventures!

        • Definitely dried, and yes it does burn really quickly, which is why I am assuming you need a good stack of pine needles so that they burn down in about five minutes, the time it takes to cook the mussels. Susan x

      • Nevermind my question. There was a bad glare when I first read this post, so I didn’t notice the picture of dried pine straw, LOL!

        • Ha ha, I wouldn’t worry, when we first saw the fires and started looking we assumed they were vine clippings in the baskets, it was a while before we realised they were pine needles! We had never heard of anyone cooking with pine, where as vine clippings are very common! Susan x

  • I can’t wait to tell my husband about the pine needle method. I remember being told to eat mussels only in monthe that end in -re (in French). In fact, the brasseries in Brussels would have posters in September proclaiming “les moules sont arrivees”–a play on the Beaujoulais nouveau posters.

    • I was always taught not to eat Mussels in the warmer months, but it seems no one takes any notice of this any longer. The biggest threat now is the mysterious virus that has wiped out over 50% of the mussels this year. We have endless pine forests here, it makes me wonder what else can be cooked this way with pine needles. I have seen locals collecting the needles, for the BBQ, they have told me when I asked, I didn’t think anything more of it, now I am going to take a little more notice! X

      • I was told the r in the month was from the days before refrigerated transportation for seafood, now it doesn’t matter. These look divine, as does the restaurant, lucky you x

        • Yes you are right, Mussel season here was from September onwards, never in these hot summer months I am told, but now of course they are on the menu all year round everywhere, the children even eat them at school at least once a month, usually twice! X

    • Thank you Anita, I am in total agreement there, the mussels were just a bonus, the main thing was the atmosphere, family and enjoying such a wonderful evening. It was very special. Susan x

  • What a find! This is one way of eating moules I have never tried nor heard of! We had plenty of moules marinières and moules à la crème with cider in the past few weeks though… So tasty. Thanks for a great post.

    • My thoughts entirely so many ways of cooking moules, featured in so many restaurants as you say, they are as common as fish and chips are to England, but I have never heard of this, it was such a shock! We were instantly captivated. So glad you had such a good time in Normandy, hope you had a good journey home and that it was not too long! Susan x

      • It is such a long journey and hard with the time difference and jet lag. We are trying to convince Dad to come back to Australia with us next time we visit hm and spend some time with us sailing, but his years are against us.

        • I totally sympathise, I’ve done the France/NZ route and I know what it’s like. I wish I could have persuaded my father to come to NZ with us, he would have loved it, but I know he never would, the flight is just way way too long. However, we have just had a couple in their 80’s staying with us. Their youngest daughter is married and lives in Perth, each year they fly out to see her, I totally admire them for that.

  • Oh boy – I love seafood and have seen it cooked a myriad of ways in my life, even here on our beach, but this looks fantastic, Susan, truly something different. I shall arm myself with a bag this afternoon and go and find some pine needles – the rest of the ingredients are easy. I have a friend who sells mussels just ten minutes away. Wow!

    A lovely post, full of intrigue and beauty. Great photos as usual, you have captured the evening delightfully. I can smell the salt and hear the crabs snickering away in the mud….

    [edit: is that a witch’s ducking-stool I see in the second photo? That would be an unusual thrill for tourists, hahaha. I’m not sure I’d like a dunk in that water…..]

    • Hi Phil, it was so unexpected and such a unique way to cook mussels, do give it a try and let me know how you find them. Now with regards to the witch’s ducking stool, I believe it was, Roddy said he thought it was as he pointed it out on the other side of the river and told the children all sorts of stories. It was an evening full of intrigue! Susan x

    • Hi Brooke, I had never heard of such a cooking method, none of us had, so it came as a complete surprise and we found it quite by chance, pure luck, which is what made for such a special evening. Susan x

  • What a coincidence! This is exactly what we had for dinner last night!! We were invited to dinner at friends. She comes from Ile d’Oleron and had grown up with this method of cooking mussels. We sat under the pine tree that provided the needles and the metal ‘plate’ they were cooked on was the central disk from an old sundial. I’d seen this method of cooking mussels on the telly but never had them in real life before. They were delicious, but you get filthy fingers! I’ll be blogging about the evening shortly.

    • Hi Susan, yes the finger nails take ages to clean afterwards! I had never seen nor heard of such a method, none of us had. Research says it originated in either the Ile d’Oleron (hence your friends knowing about it) or the Pays Rochefortais. Did you enjoy them? I have to admit I found the mussels better than I have ever tasted before and well worth the mess! Now I am wondering what else can be cooked this way! Susan x

      • I thought they were delicious. Simon didn’t like them so much. He thinks they had picked up a flavour from the fig or vine leaves underneath them that he didn’t like. I have to say that he still managed to consume his share though!

        • I thought they were delicious too, I actually much preferred them this way. These ones didn’t have any other leaves under them, they were just placed on the bare wood and then piled high with the needles. I shall be returning though, it totally intrigued me! X

  • Wow, you came upon the perfect place to enjoy your dinner with such a wonderful atmosphere. I love reading about these cultures and your photos are wonderful. I guess the people didn’t mind you taking pictures. I think we would get odd looks here.

    • Hi Kim, the atmosphere was fantastic, very casual, very simple, just perfect. There were lots of tourists, lots of locals, lots of people taking photos. We asked the man cooking if we could take photos after we had asked him lots of questions, he smiled and agreed willingly. The waiter actually stopped for us so we could snap away, only to happy to help. Often when I am taking photos, people actually step forward and wave, only too happy to be included, it makes it all rather fun! Susan x

  • I’ve had oysters picked just a short time before, roasted in the shell on a grill until they open, sizzling in their own juices. This sounds even more enchanting. What a perfect way to end a late summer evening.

    • Hi Patricia, that sounds like a fairly similar way. This was so unusual, but as I learnt, a traditional method for the area. It was messy, but well worth it! We were still scrubbing our fingernails 24 hours later! Susan x

  • Looks like such a wonderful evening, Susan. The long summer evenings there really do lend themselves to eating al fresco, and the mussels sound delicious cooked this way. Mmm with garlic bread too……perfect. Love your photos of the boats, and the sunset is beautiful. 🙂

    • Thanks so much Syliva, it was indeed the most perfect summer evening. It was really warm, still 30C at 10pm, everywhere was lively and happy but at the same time very laid back throughout the whole village. Lots and lots of people just intent on ambling around slowly, eating, having a glass of wine or an aperatif, just soaking in the atmosphere. It was just one of those perfect evenings that I shall never forget. Susan x

    • Hi Nadia, I had never even heard of mussels cooked this way either, it never occurred to me and I also had never imagined cooking with pine needles, we learn something new every day! X

  • I had moules like this once. A French friend who was from one of the Atlantic islands, I forget which, cooked them for us, they were the best I have ever eaten. Your post today brought back many memories. Thank you x

    • Hi Amanda, your friend was most likely from the Ile d’Oleron, this method of traditional cooking originated either on the Ile d’Oleron or in the surrounding Rochefort area. They were the best mussels I have ever eaten too, a really delicious flavour, messy, but well worth it. Susan x

  • Personally I don’t care for mussels no matter how they are cooked, but I did love the walk you took us on along the river, I would happily spend an evening there just for the beauty of a place like that.

  • Yummy….. What a beautiful day and the traditions go on.
    I love to continue to read your life in beautiful France and your new adventures with your family. What a great find the best restruants are the ones tuck away. Thank You For Sharing.

    • Hi Sallie, indeed, the best restaurants are often off the beaten track, if Roddy had not suggested we go and look a little further down the dusty lane, I suspect so he could look at the fishing boats, we would never have found it. I have been to the village many times and yet it was the first time I had been here! An evening I shall never forget Susan x

  • I have never heard of this cooking method before, but it has given me a new use for the pine needles that fall from our Italian cipresi. Sadly, and on a visit to Paris, I had an unfortunate encounter with a bad mussel and have not been able to eat them since. And j’adore mussels……..

  • I have never heard of that cooking method. Now I have a new use for the needles that fall from our Italian cipresi. Sadly, and on a trip to Paris, I had an unfortunate encounter with a mussel and have not been able to eat them since. And j’adore them…..

    • Hi Lisa, I had never heard of this method either, what a shame you can no longer eat them, but it would still be wonderful to cook them for other people, it has certainly set me thinking, I wonder what else can be cooked in this way, I would never have thought of using pine needles, ever! Susan x

  • Gorgeous light, and such a well told picture story. I agree with the others that this is one of your best posts yet. The sort of surprise that France keeps in its back pocket for its most ardent admirers!

    • Agreed. I got so caught up with the food aspect of the post that I did not mention the story. Magical. It is heartening that old customs are still respected and enjoyed.

      • Thanks so much Lisa, it is wonderful to watch someone just cooking casually, an ancient tradition that has survived for so long. Personally I found myself wishing I could buy one of the fishing huts, I would love to have a little camp there, imagine how incredible one could make the inside, simple but stunning! Susan x

    • Thank you so much Ellen, I really appreciate that. It was such a surprise. We weren’t going to go any further, it was my husband who said let’s just go down this road and see what we find! Away from the people, in all the years I have been going to this village it is the first time I have been down this little lane! Susan x

  • A lovely lovely way to enjoy moules. We use this method as we have no shortage of pine trees, but unfortunately we’re at very high risk for forest fires at the moment so can’t bbq. This is also the sort of restaurant I adore… 🙂

    • It’s the perfect type of restaurant for me, all about the atmosphere and good simple food. It is so dry here too, only one day of rain since the end of June and still none forecast, it keeps saying we might get some and then it goes away! Are you not even allowed to BBQ at home in the garden? Xx

    • Perfect indeed, now if only I can entice you down to the Charente Maritime! Am not looking forward to La Rentrée one little bit! Eeeking out every minute of these last few days. Xx

  • What a find and what a fabulous way to enjoy the sunset! Another wonderful post and peek at your adventures. Yum!

    • Hi Nancy, it was such an unexpected surprise. The atmosphere was fantastic, very casual, very laid-back, but just wonderful and this was such a find. An evening I won’t forget. Susan x

    • It was a really unexpected find Barbara, I cannot tell you how shocked we were, I have been to Mornac so many times, but it was the first time we had ventured up this tiny road! Hopefully you can try them out when you come to the department next month! X

    • Nor had I, it was quite a find. But I have to admit they were the best I have ever tasted, with a great smoky flavour, messy, in fact we were still scrubbing our finger nails 24 hours later, but well worth it! Xx

    • Hi Penny, it was so unique and unusual, I have since learnt that it is quite common in this small area where it originated, but I have never seen it before. They tasted quite delicious, the best I have ever eaten, messy, but well worth it. Susan x

  • Sounds like a lovely, laid-back evening and perfect, simple, delicious meal. Funny, I only ever think of having moules in Ireland, France or Belgium.

    • Hi Mary, it was the most perfect evening, one I shall never forget. Where we are is one of the biggest, if not the biggest, mussel producing areas in Europe, so we see them on the menu all the time. They are so common, Moules frites, even the children have them at least once a month at school for lunch, it’s standard food, but this was a wonderfully different way of cooking them, messy, but well worth it! Susan x

    • Hi Joanne, we have endless pine forests around here, the area is renowned for them. Often I have seen people collecting the needles and when I have asked they have said they are for the BBQ, I have just shrugged it off and thought nothing more of it, but now I shall pay closer attention, I am wondering what else I can cook this way! Susan x

  • Oh la la! J’adore les moules! I have never seen them cooked this way. Yet another reason to revisit the Charente-Maritime! Of course, I would start with a glass of Pineau des Charentes. So happy you stumbled upon this place. Milles mercis!

    • Thanks Elaine, it was a complete surprise to us too, we see mussels on the menu everywhere, the children even eat them at school at least once a month if not more, but we had never even heard of this method. They were delicious, the best we have ever eaten, messy, but well worth it! And so happy you would start with a Pineau des Charentes! Susan x

  • Serendipity! Don’t you just love the way something wonderful can just crop up and you just roll with it? My life motto these days…. A great post – thanks!

    • Thanks Alison, I do love this, the very best type of evening, the total unexpected, not at all what was planned. I have been to the village so many times but never have we left the little harbour and ventured down this small dusty road away from the shops, there was never any reason to go there but I am so glad we did, it was fate! Susan x

  • I absolutely LOVE moules and eat them at every opportunity and cook them regularly too. Some of the best I have ever had, amazingly were in Salem MA but of course I’ve had some absolute stonkers in Europe. I have never ever seen them cooked like this and am fascinated and wishing I had been there to scoff a few myself! xx

    • Of course moules frites here are like fish and chips to the UK, the kids even eat them in school at least once a month. I have seen them everywhere on every menu and I have never even heard of this method. I’ve never heard of cooking with pine needles either. Funnily enough I met some people gathering pine needles in one of the forests near us a couple of weeks ago, I was intrigued and asked what they were collecting them for. Cooking on the BBQ they replied, I thought it was a little strange but thought no more of it. Now I wonder if indeed they were cooking mussels. I wonder can other things be cooked this way too? Xx

        • We are surrounded by pine forests here, everywhere! And yes, totally agree grilling is a way of life, and the very best one, I eat outdoors and cook outdoors as much as possible, even on warm sunny days in the winter it is quite possible to lunch outside xx

  • This is so lovely. I’m glad you kept walking. The restaurant reminds me of one we came across in Greece, impromptu, outdoors, with very fresh fish–and watermelon for dessert delivered after.

    • The restaurant in Greece sounds like my kind of restaurant, the absolute best. We used to go to one on the Island of Madeira, we climbed down about 200 steps down the cliff to a ledge on the water’s edge. It was again fresh fish and tiny shell fish, all grilled on the spot and to order. Local wine, very casual, crusty bread. One of the best restaurant’s ever! Susan x

  • Hi Susan, I’m one of those people who doesn’t like mussels but I’d love to sit at the water’s edge with a glass of rose and some garlic bread. It’s always fun to discover an unexpected treasure like this. A special memory.

    • The atmosphere was utterly perfect, even if you didn’t eat the mussels it was delightful just to sit watch the world go by, as you say sipping a glass of wine and the garlic bread was delicious. Plus then you would not get filthy finger nails, which took forever to clean! Susan x

  • Bag – check
    Pine forest – check
    Mussels – check
    Wooden board – check
    Matches – check
    Cardboard fan – check
    Garlic bread – check
    Wine – check
    Plastic mugs – check
    Corkscrew – check
    Napkins – check

    I think that’s it. Great post, great find, great photos, and great blog. Love it as always, Susan. The girlfriend and I are off out with the dogs as I speak. I’ll report back later!

  • We adore mussels and eat them at least once a month, year round, but more often in the summer. We were just in Cape Cod, where we had mussels from Nauset marsh — once at home, in marinara sauce, and once at a lovely small French bistro nearby, PB Boulangerie, where the moules frites were to die for.

    But, I’d say your mussel experience tops all!! And I bet the kids will have lifelong memories of the time they first had mussels cooked on pine needles.

    • Hi Adele, we eat mussels regularly here and so do the children, at least once a month, if not twice a month at school for lunch. However, this was a first for us, we had neither seen this method nor heard of it before, but they were the best we have ever eaten, messy, but well worth it! Susan x

  • I think it is as the saying goes, some of the best adventures happen when you go off the beatiin” path. IT sounds like a wonderful and special evening! I hope that you have a wonderful week Susan!

    • Thank you Elizabeth, I agree! It was a fabulous evening, such a surprise and one we will never forget. Very messy and we were still scrubbing our finger nails 24 hours later, but well worth it! Hope you too have a great week. Susan x

  • It’s always worth going off the beaten track, you never know what you’ll find! It sounds as if it was the perfect evening with your family. I’ve just seen your guest cottage online – it looks lovely and very tempting for a future visit to the Charente Maritime!
    By the way – hens eating corn from our hands – Buffy (Buff Orpington), Florence (Gold Laced Orp bantam and Boo (Boudicea) – Silver Lavender Laced Orp bantam – the feisty one! Seem to be happy! No eggs yet. Can’t be too long now!
    Talking of spur of the moment outings – do you ever go off for a picnic? We were talking about that the other day, a picnic in the countryside, blanket on the ground, things for children to play with, space to run around, warm sunny weather – magic! I love those old picnic baskets as well, although they can be heavy, but so romantic!
    Have a lovely week Susan and hope the grass comes back soon!

    • Hi Marian, it was a fabulous evening and one we shall remember for a long time to come, very messy but well worth it! We often go off for picnics, I love them. In the summer, picnics are nearly always at the beach, with the old blanket, I far prefer it to eating at a coastal restaurant which is always crowded. I love the names of your hens, and so happy they are eating out of your hands, it won’t be long and you will have eggs! We are on a hunt for Lavender Aracauna’s as I really want some blue eggs! Would be lovely to welcome you here. Have a lovely week too, Susan x

  • Hi Susan. We had the classic moules frites at home tonight. Somehow 3kg between 4 of us was a little excessive but hey ho! I’ve never heard of mussels cooked this way but there are no pine trees here so must be a very local to the Charente Maritime.

    • Thanks so much. We had never seen this before either, it is a way of cooking unique to this area and very localised. The flavour is incredible, the best I have ever eaten, very messy, but well worth it! Susan x

  • Susan, thank you for your most informative blog. Thanks to you, we’ve had great visits recently to the moules restaurant and Port D’Envaux. We’ve recently moved to the Charente Maritime after 10 years in the Dordogne, so are still finding our feet.

    I wrote about the moules restaurant on my AngloInfo Dordogne blog (called ‘Watching for Polar Bears) and mentioned your excellent blog. Many thanks for your helpful advice in your posts – keep up the good work!

    Regards: Jim and Diana x

    • Hi Jim and Diana, so glad you enjoyed Mornac and the moules. I just went and had a lovely read of your blog, but I couldn’t find a way to follow it or comment, any ideas? I particularly loved your comment that you have eaten in thousands of restaurants, some good and some bad, know that feeling only too well, we had one awful meal this summer where we actually walked out, we paid full amount and not even an apology, we literally didn’t eat a thing, but that’s another story! The moules were fantastic, perhaps when you go back next week before they close you can give me a call, you could pop in for a cup of tea/evening apero before you head back, I think you are not too far away from your blog. Would love to meet you and chat, it sounds as if you have had quite an interesting time here and I am dying to know why you chose the CM rather than a smaller place in the Dordogne? Do email me if you read this, my email is on the blog. Once again thanks so much for the mention. Susan xx

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