In Miami we can always tell there is a change in seasons when department stores change their displays. As soon as we see the Halloween and Thanksgiving ads, we quickly realize the coming of fall. Up north, people notice the drop in temperature, the magnificent colors of the foliage and think of Nat King Coles version of Autumn Leaves – originally called “Les Feuilles Mortes” which literally translates as “The Dead Leaves”.
To me, the much awaited arrival of fall means mussels and not because after the summer months September is the first month with an “R” – supposedly, it is only safe to eat bivalve mollusks such as clams, oysters and mussels during months that contain R’s in their spelling. If this rule of thumb is to be considered at all, it should be limited to oysters, since they are the ones that spawn during the summer. Mussels are basically safe to eat all year round; the mussel season in France runs from July until November.
My yearnings for mussels in the fall go back to when we first visited Le Havre, a city in the Normandy region of north-western France, originally named Fraciscopolis after King Francis I who founded it in 1517. The city, with the second largest port in France, was established around the chapel known as Notre-Dame-de-Grâce (Our Lady of Grace) and the city subsequently became known as “The Harbor of Grace” or Le Havre de Grâce. The name has been shortened to Le Havre or The Harbor.
During the Battle of Normandy in 1944, the city was devastated; 5,000 people were killed and over 90% of the city was left in rubble. At the end of World War II, Le Havre was the worst damaged city in the country and had to be rebuilt. It took over two years just to remove the debris which was used to raise the level of the city.
Even though Le Havre lacks the traditional old buildings found throughout France, it is certainly a most quaint location with very nice people and its own flair. Unlike Miami Beach, la Plage du Havre (the beach) has very little sand and lots of smooth rocks; actually the only sand I have ever seen is at the “pétanque piste” or pétanque court. (Pétanque is a “sport” similar to bocce or bowls where the object of the game is to throw a ball as close as possible to a smaller wooden ball that had been previously thrown. It seems to be like the game of horseshoes but with balls.)
The beach has three other features that are very different from what we are used to: rentable cabanas on the beach where you change into your swimwear, a rollerblading park where kids can get really hurt by going up in the air as far and as fast as they can while the insurance premiums for the city have probably doubled and a row of restaurants and stalls catering to families.
In early October when there is a chill in the air and you walk down the promenade in front of the mostly outdoor restaurants, the first thing to notice is the signs announcing the availability of moules frites (mussels and French fries). A closer look will reveal there is a bucket of mussels at almost every table and everyone in the family from little kids to the elderly grandparents are thoroughly enjoying the feast. Once you look close enough, you may even learn how to use the shells as stubby “chopsticks.”
Since joy is contagious, it will not be long before you realize that you want some of whatever they are having. Without hesitation you take a table at the most boisterous location and order the biggest bucket of mussels and fries. Accompanying them with a bottle of Chablis is most appropriate and I promise, it will not be long before you feel like a local. Suddenly, Le Havre becomes a very special place.
This most unique experience is why autumn means mussels.