The Menai Straits is one of the best places in the UK to grow mussels. Since the Roman time, this stretch of water has been used for farming these molluscs. About 50% of UK mussel production is farmed along this stretch of water, up to 10,000 tonnes a year. The mussels that you have in London restaurants are probably Welsh although probably don’t know it.
The Menai Straits is the perfect place to farm oysters as it has strong tidal currents, with water flowing from both ends of the Straits. The gulf stream brings with it a lot of nutrient rich water, which has lots of mussel friendly food. All the mussel farmers on the straits adhere to farming practices that are in harmony with the environment. This ensures that their operations support a sustainable and vibrant coastal environment which also enriches the biodiversity of the mud flats.
Growing Mussels on the Menai Straits
I got on board the Mare Gratia with John the Captain and his crew, Peter and Steven. They have been working on the mussel boats for years. Unfortunately, our trip out today was not to harvest mussels but to put back some old mussel shells that were left over from a previous trip.
We sail sedately out of Penrhyn Harbour across the river smooth waters towards Beaumaris town on Anglesey. I can see on the screen the areas that have been demarked as the farming area belonging to their company, Deep Dock Mussels. This stretches from Bangor Pier to around Beaumaris and is aboutt 24 hectares in size. Most of the straits is used for mussel farming and it is all marked up on the charts just like a farm on land is.
The mussels are left to grow on the bed at the bottom of the straits as this produces a better mussel to eat with a stronger shell, which has a longer shelf life. They are not rope grown.
Being the middle of the growing season, they will go out and harvest as demand dictates. This can vary from day to day.
The mussels they are harvesting now in January have been in the deep trenches of the Menai Straits for up to 2 years. This gives them a lot of time to slowly mature, for the shells to harden and grow plump.
To harvest, they will drop their baskets down to the beds and dredge up the mussels from the mud beds. The haul will be deposited into the big tanks on the boat where they moved by the conveyor belt system where they will be washed and graded. The ones that are too small will fall through and be put back into the sea. At this stage, any big rocks or debris will be removed.
Large 1 ton bags are hooked up at the end of the conveyor belt which are then filled in turn. These one ton bags are then transported to the processing facilities, the small one in North Wales or trucked over to Holland (more than 95% of total production).
How to grow mussels
In the July and August, the mussel boats travel to Morecombe Bay, Northern Ireland and even all the way down to Swansea to collect wild seed mussels. The lack of seed mussels is one of the limitations that mussel farmers face every season. They use their baskets with the tendrils to sweep along muddy river banks to collect the seeds. The trip to Morecombe bay can take about 18 hours, they harvest seed mussels for up to 12 hours and make the return journey back.
On their return, the seed mussels are distributed along the tidal shores around the Menai. They will stay there for a year before they are moved to the deeper waters to mature. As the Menai has a 6 hourly tidal pattern, these baby mussels only feed for 12 hours a day when the tide is high. At this stage, they don’t grow very fast.
After a year, after they are moved, they will be able to feed 24 hours a day, accelerating their growth. At this time, the Mussel Men have to tend to their crop by constantly removing the predators that eat the mussels like starfish and green crabs.
In recent years, the impact of global warming has changed the breeding patterns of mussels. They usually rely on temperature changes to spawn. They used to just spawn twice a year but now they can spawn up to 5 times a year. The impact of climate change is a concern and will probably change mussel farming in the years to come.
Where to buy Menai Mussels in North Wales
It is not easy to find Menai mussels for sale in North Wales. Yes, tonnes are produced in the area but they are mostly sent off to Europe as there is very little demand locally.
There are 2 fishmongers, one in Llandudno and one in Holyhead that sell local mussels and nothing in between. There is a butcher shop in Beaumaris that sometimes stocks them too. That’s about it I’m afraid. The local supermarkets are not allowed to stock them as they don’t meet regulations.
View of Beaumaris Town and Castle
Some local restaurants where you can sample Menai mussels are Dylans, The Marran Grass café and sometimes the café on the pier in Bangor.
About 99% of the production is sent to Holland by refrigerated trucks for processing. This gets distributed to customers in Europe where most the demand is. Unfortunately, due to EU regulations, they are unable to sell the mussels locally. After processing in Holland, some of them might find their way back to shops in the UK but by then, they probably won’t be called Welsh mussels anymore.
The waters around the Menai Straits are only rated a B. For the product to be sold in the UK, it has to come from A grade waters which is only found in Scotland.
Deep Dock Mussels have a small mussel processing plant in North Wales where they can process a small amount of the catch. This is just to supply the local demand.
There are plans to build a local mussel processing plant on the harbour. Plans have been in the works for a few years and funding is being raised. This would mean that new jobs willbe created and it will be possible to buy Menai mussels locally.
When I was in Conwy, I noticed a little sign on the harbour, “Conwy Mussels”. This is an old family business that has been passed down the generations. They still grow and harvest mussels by hand with a rake, the old traditional way. It is only a small production but at least, it is somewhere you can buy local Welsh mussels to cook yourself.
When you are visiting North Wales, try and hunt some down. Ask around the local pubs and restaurants as it seems to be quite elusive.
EatCookExplore was taken out on the mussel boat as a gues to Deep Dock Mussels of the Menai Straits.