BAR HARBOR — Mussels are so important to the Dutch and their neighbors in northern Europe that, when Belgium was angry about a dredging dispute with Holland in 2009, the shellfish briefly became a pawn in the drama: Belgium blocked all imports of the bivalve.
Perhaps a better indicator of the mussel’s centrality to Dutch culture is not that geopolitical spat, or any others that may have flared up over the centuries, but the meaning it carries for those from the Netherlands.
“Eating mussels with friends and family is associated with a cozy feeling,” said Fiona de Koning, who moved to Holland after meeting her Dutch husband, Theo de Koning, while he was sailing on the east coast of England (where she was born).
Fiona, Max, Alex and Theo de Koning run Acadia Aqua Farms with employees and other family members. They were also joined by their dog, a German shepherd-mix, on a recent afternoon. PHOTO BY CHARLES EICHACKER
Much like Maine has lobster festivals and other parts of the country have events celebrating their own regional cuisines, Dutch towns will celebrate the small mollusk that delights so many of their (and our) taste buds.
More than a source of coziness, mussels are also a livelihood for the de Konings. They now live in Bar Harbor and run Acadia Aqua Farms with their children.
In his coastal hometown of Bruinisse, just off the North Sea, Theo studied aquaculture and acquired a mussel farming business from his grandfather, who had inherited it from several earlier generations.
He and his family still own and operate that farm from afar, but 10 years ago, the de Konings moved to Maine so Theo could take a separate job with Great Eastern Mussel Farms. When that closed in 2008, they started their local, year-round operation.
Yes, you heard that right.
With “lots of sweat and tears,” Fiona recalled. During winter, they suit up in the warmest gear available and work their 160 acres of aquaculture leases stretching around the northern part of Mount Desert Island.
They process their mussels on board the Stewardship, a boat specially rigged with tanks and a saltwater pump, ensuring more freshness when they make it to wholesalers, restaurants or retailers — and more frigidness as the family and their employees handle the harvest each winter.
According to Fiona, they’re currently preparing to open a processing plant that will cut down on that exposure.
They try to harvest as sustainably as possible, Fiona said, because they want to “add to the legacy” of Theo’s forbears.
Once they’ve raised the shellfish and brought them to the surface with a dragger, they filter sand out of them, debeard them and ready them for distribution under the name Hollander & de Koning Mussels.
They work with wholesalers as much as possible and ship their mussels all over the world, but Fiona said their product can be found at the store Peekytoe Provisions in Bar Harbor.
Asked what mussels recipes they’d recommend, the oldest son, 23-year-old University of Maine student Alex, mentioned a deep fried option.
His mother scoffed and advocated for a simpler, steamed option — its recipe can be found to the side.
De Koning family's steamed mussels
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Fiona, Max, Alex and Theo de Koning run Acadia Aqua Farms with employees and other family members. The family's recipe for steamed mussels serves two as an entrée or four as an appetizer.
Wash the mussels under running water and scrub the mussels with a stiff brush. Discard any open mussels that do not close within 30 seconds if you tap them.
Do not chop the vegetable too finely as their color, texture and flavor are part of the enjoyment of this dish.
Put a teaspoon of olive oil, the chopped vegetables, herbs and garlic in a large pan with a close fitting lid and stir-fry them for a minute or two only. Add the wine, ½ tsp. salt and plenty of freshly milled black pepper. Place the pan on a very high heat. As soon as the liquid is boiling, add the mussels and put the lid on the pan, ensuring a good tight fit. Steam the mussels for just long enough so that all the mussels are open, but no longer than that, or the mussels will be less tender. Serve immediately in a warmed serving dish. The crusty bread is delicious if dipped in the broth in the pan.
Serve with warm crusty bread, a good chilled Chardonnay and a crispy green salad.
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Mustard Mayonnaise Mussel Dip
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Recipe courtesy of the de Koning family of Acadia Aqua Farms
Charles Eichacker covers the towns of Bucksport, Orland, Castine, Verona Island, Penobscot, Brooksville and Dedham. When not working on stories, he likes books, beer and the outdoors. [email protected]