For years Danish fishermen have dredged the country’s waters for mussels to be frozen or canned. But now environmentally aware pioneers are growing the molluscs on lines and selling their fresh produce to people willing to shell out for a gourmet delicacy.
Cutting through the Jutland peninsula, Limfjorden is the largest “fjord”(actually a sea inlet) in Denmark. Still, it’s only a five-minute trip by ferry from the small town of Sundsøre to the slightly larger one of Hvalpsund on the far shore. But once you’re back on dry land, you find yourself in Denmark’s Wild West.
When I ask the man in the tourist office (or rather “shed”) where I can find the blue-mussel farmers, he chews his tobacco before telling me to, “go ask ‘Fishing Net’ Peter”. I track Peter down, who then nods in the direction of two men down the road. One of them is Kaj-Lykke Larsen and he is having his mussel boat fixed; some restless kids stole it the other night and ran it aground.
Larsen is the manager of Dansk Linemusling, Denmark’s leading blue-mussel farm. It might be hard to imagine but this man, with his greying beard and broken boat, is the representative of a sustainable, eco-friendly gourmet business that is winning an international following. Larsen confirms the Wild West analogy: a few years ago, a veritable gold rush raged in the Limfjorden region after an EU and Danish government-financed pilot project between 1999 and 2001 cleared the way for farming line-grown mussels. Suddenly, everybody wanted a piece of the action: Larsen’s company will have a turnover of €500,000 this year.
“A lot of folks smelled money. Today, only the hardcore companies are left. The whole mussel-farming business is a lot tougher than we were told. We’ve had to cling on, to figure everything out at the same time – from the actual production to finding our market. But it looks as if we’re finally about to get lucky,” he says.
Despite the country’s modest size, Denmark has Europe’s fourth longest coastline – 7,300km – due to its many small islands. It also has a long tradition of eating oysters and blue mussels – their shells have been found in archaeological digs at sites dating back to 4,000BC. But while their ancestors enjoyed fruits de mer on a daily basis, most modern Danes don’t give a clam about molluscs, and most of today’s harvest is exported.
For decades, Danish fishermen have scraped the bottom of fjords for blue mussels, harvesting up to 150,000 tonnes a year. But by 2005, due to ecological concerns, production halved. However, mussels scraped from fjords are either frozen or canned, while those reared by Dansk Linemusling are sold fresh.
To understand the new gourmet connection, we have to go back to the harbour at Hvalpsund. Larsen and the mechanic have fixed their boat, Line Rotholm – a small aluminium vessel with a 240hp motor and a strong crane that lifts the mussel lines out of the water.
With an ideal water temperature and salt balance, and a healthy supply of plankton and algae, Limfjorden provides excellent conditions for mussels. In many respects, this is an easy business but it is vulnerable, too. Larval mussels attach themselves to lines that are anchored to the fjord’s bed by slabs of concrete. Buoys keep them at the right level – too high in winter and they could be killed by ice.
As the mussels grow, the farmer releases some and places others in “stockings” attached to the ropes. The stockings dissolve after two weeks, by which time, the mussels have formed large clusters.
While feeding, the molluscs also clean the water, filtering it of nitrogen and phosphorus. Yet nature can destroy the crop, too. If the water becomes too warm in summer and algae multiply out of control, it can deoxygenate the water and trigger the release of hydrogen sulphide from the fjord’s bed, which in a short time kills the mussels. But if everything goes to plan, within just 10 months, the mussels are ready to harvest.
There are around 12 mussel farmers in Denmark. Larsen and Dansk Linemusling will produce roughly 500 tonnes of line-grown mussels this year, a third of the estimated Danish total. Using the crane on the Line Rotholm, Larsen pulls some of his 167 lines of mussels up from the depths of the grey water. The molluscs hang together in a torso-shaped cluster. Larsen picks off a few, and with his soiled hands, opens one with his Swiss army knife, handing it over with a “bon appétit”. The firm, mango-coloured meat is on par with a great oyster.
“According to our Dutch customers, we produce the best mussels in Europe. They like the fact that Danish mussels are the largest and the meat has a firm consistency,” says Larsen with pride.
Oysters: like the blue mussels, they are large and with a firm consistency. Try the VenØsters from the waters around the small island Venø in Limfjorden.
Lamb: from the marshes around the Waddenzee, that stretches from mid-Jutland down to Holland. When you eat the tender meat, you can almost taste the salty wind of the North Sea.
Honey: honey from the Mols Bjerge or Mols Mountains (at 174m it’s the highest point in Denmark.)
Flour: Miller Jørn Ussing Larsen and his firm Aurion are located close to Hjørring. He’s a pioneer who experiments with spelt and one-grained wheat. Also makes great bread.