Mussel-bound

28 Apr 2005

To those amongst this column’s readers who happen to be traveling along the Conero coastline between Ancona and Numana from April to the end of October, I would suggest a visit to one of the eating places that serve mosciolo. Mosciolo is a dialect word the inhabitants of Ancona use to refer to the Mitylus galloprovincialis, a variety of mussel with an elongated black shell and an unmistakable aroma of the sea.

Today, thanks to the dedicated work of the fishermen’s cooperative in Portonovo, which has created a trademark, the mosciolo has come to represent the classic uncultivated mussel (it never grows in beds but only by clinging to rocks). The area has one of the rare stretches of high and rocky cliffs on the Adriatic. In the vicinity of Mount Conero, a rocky formation reaches out for almost a kilometre into the sea which, on account of its curious shape, is called ‘the beam’ by the locals. Here, at a depth of between 5 and 10 meters, the mosciolo mussel proliferates.

Nowadays, alas, there is virtually no fishing for mussels that are not cultivated — not only in Italy, but throughout the world. The fishermen who continue the job around Ancona are among the last survivors.

In order to prevent the complete disappearance of the mosciolo, Slow Food has decided to create a Presidium. This was absolutely essential, especially in view of the fact that since the early 1970s the fishing fleet for this activity has been reduced from 80 to a mere 15 or so.

The reason for the decline is simple. In contrast to the uncomplicated hauling up of small farming nets, sea fishing requires the men to undertake long immersions slightly below the surface of the water from just before dawn to about 10 in the morning. This is when the sea is at its clearest but, above all, when it is at its calmest, making it much easier to work clinging on to the rocks. The fact that this is such hard work, however, has not encouraged recent generations to follow in their fathers’ footsteps and the youngest fisherman in the cooperative is already over 40.

It is an exhausting activity but it pays off and guarantees a highly superior mussel. Moscioli grow in an extremely clear area of water and do not need to be immersed in filtering tanks to become edible. The fact that the mosciolo is born, feeds and lives on a natural rock and eats only certain algae gives it a flavor incomparable with that of mussels that pass all their existence in a net attached to a cultivation pole.

The Presidium’s spokesman, Franco Frezzotti, explains that, like wine, there are good and bad years for mussels and that, according to the characteristics of the climate and the sea, the quality varyies. The attentive connoisseur is even able to distinguish which coastal town the mussels were fished near.

Modernday mosciolo fishing is sustainable, providing the eco-system with sufficient time to regenerate. Thanks to the fishermen’s cooperative of Portonovo (0033 ? 071 801042), it is possible to buy them directly at sales outlets in Portonovo and Numana. For non-locals, the best plan is to taste them in one of the trattorias along the coast.

First printed in La Stampa on 17/04/2005

Translation by Nicola Rudge-Iannelli

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