Photo by Natalie B. Compton

Frigid waters from Antarctica create the perfect habitat for mussels

Natalie B. Compton
February 14, 2018

Most people know Patagonia for its Argentinian side, the side that contains epic glaciers and Francis Mallmann grilling fish in the dirt and clay. But the region of Patagonia extends westward to Chile, a country blessed with coastline, dazzling scenery, and an abundance of seafood. How abundant? Chile is the largest exporter of mussels in the world. Oxygen-, plankton- and krill-rich waters from Antarctica flow along the Chilean Patagonia coast via the Humboldt Current and create a perfect habitat for mussels. Whereas mussels take two years to mature in Europe, or three years in New Zealand, Patagonia mussels are ripe for harvesting after just twelve months.

If you want to eat mussels at the source, it’s a good idea to go to Chile between December and February, when the country is knee-deep in its southern hemisphere summer. When the weather is at its best, local and international tourists flock southward to insanely picturesque Chilean Patagonia. At the beginning of the region is the snowcapped volcano-surrounded Puerto Varas, a town with Bavarian architectural touches. The town is home to Orizon, a major Chilean mussel producer. I stand on a stony beach staring out at one of Orizon’s farms on Huenquillahue Bay, a Chilean flag dancing from a pole behind me. A mussel farm does not look like much compared to the dramatic Andes Mountains jutting behind it. The dark teal bay is sprinkled with blue, grey, and green buoys. In the middle of them, there’s a rusty orage ship we get to by a small rubber speedboat. Onboard the bigger vessel, mussel workers mill around in the sunshine. Waves crash against the boat and a rainbow appears in the shimmering mist.

Photo by Natalie B. Compton

Some of the men onboard are designated divers. They’re wearing jumpsuits that say “Dolphins Buceo Professional.” Twice a day, every day, they dive into the bone-chilling water in wetsuits to manage the ropes of growing mussels hanging from the buoys. Their job is to untangle the ropes, once in the morning and once in the afternoon. There’s no need for special lighting equipment, the visibility in the bay is very good. We head back to shore to see where the harvested mussels are processed.

Stepping into a mussel-processing factory is a jarring experience. Outside of the Orizon facility, the whipping coastal wind blows with a salty force and just a twinge of funk. Inside, the funk multiplies tenfold; you’re officially in mussel territory, baby. You think there’s no way you’ll ever get used to the raw power of the seafood’s aroma, but within minutes of donning safety garb (white galoshes, white lab coat, gloves, eye goggles, noise cancelling ear muffs), the smell is no big deal. Employees pass through the white halls of the plant chatting and laughing, it’s another day at the office. Here mussels are brought in from the nearby farms, cleaned, cooked, frozen, and packaged to be shipped around the world for our dining needs. Perhaps more surprising than the ease of adjusting to the pungent environment is that the mussels are good eating on their own without the help of French sauces or Thai spices. Once steamed at the factory, the plump morsels are wildly tasty thanks to the salty water from whence they came plus their natural sweetness. You could eat a bowl full of them—no seasoning necessary.

Photo by Natalie B. Compton

Further down into Chilean Patagonia is Chiloé Island, an idyllic pastoral wonderland of rolling hills and sapphire blue ocean boundaries. It takes a few hours of driving plus a ferry ride to get to the island, named for its seagulls. The island has wicked weather most of the year, but today it’s clear and warm. We drive by hot dog stands, verdant farms where more than 300 types of potatoes are grown, UNESCO-protected wooden churches that date back to the 1700s. Eventually we reach Rilán, home of St. Andrews, the largest producer in the Chilean mussel game. We cascade down a swooping hill covered in farms and flowers. Chubby sheep trot down the gravel road in a panic. A man tromps up the hill on a horse. We arrive at the collection of yellow building with red roofs just steps from the bay. Félix Howard is the boss around here with white hair and an authoritatively deep voice. He lives in building behind the office with his pack of dogs during the week, then goes home to his human family in Santiago on the weekends. He’s worked in the mussel business for 32 years, and takes us out on a small boat to go examine how mussels are grown, from dropping the seedling-covered ropes into the clear water to reeling in the grown product by the massive bin-full.

There’s wildlife everywhere but the mussels of Chile don’t have any predators to worry about. The Sea lions lazing around the farms are just there to hang out. So are the penguins and the dolphins. The only concern for mussel farmers is red tide, a noxious algae bloom. Scientist monitor water conditions for signs of red tide, and stop harvesting for about a month for the water to clear. The self-filtering mussels are good to go after the hold, and everyone returns to business as usual. “This frozen product is fresher than a fresh product,” Félix says, pointing to the bins. I can confirm, thinking back to the efficient process at the Orizon factory. Knives are brandished. It’s time to try these bad boys right out of the water. Félix smokes a cigarette and hands me a freshly sliced open mussel straight from the sea. “You’re going to try the best mussel of your life,” he says. “Raw. Fresh. The best mussel in the world.” I one thousand percent prefer the steamed kind, but the experience is fun.

Photo by Natalie B. Compton

That night, it’s time for a curanto, a sort of Chilean clam bake that dates back thousands of years to the island’s native inhabitants. Our host digs a hole in the ground and fills it with hot stones, then adds in the good stuff. There are clams, Patagonia mussels, of course, a bevy of potatoes, pork, chorizo, green beans, and other beans, all layered on top of each other, then covered with giant nalca leaves that hold in the smoke and steam. In-between nalca layers, the chef and host throws in milcao, a gooey potato bread slash pancake that goes with the meal. We wait for the food and drink icy pisco sours. Pisco often gets advertised as a Peruvian thing, but Chile is also a major producer of the brandy. Buzzed from the cocktail and unfazed by the increasingly heavy island rain, we eat the perfectly cooked meal. It couldn’t be much more simple, or more delicious.

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