Lisa has a Latin class today, but Anna and I decide, on a happy whim, to go visit Sete, a small fishing village one train stop away. We wander to the Gare de Montpellier-Saint Roch, stopping at a random patisserie on the way. We examine the display of pastries, sweet smelling glossy packages of chocolate, cream, butter, sugar. We share a brioche Suisse and fougasse, both wrapped in crinkly parchment paper. Sucré et salé.
While waiting for the train, Anna spots a 5 euro note scuttling around the platform. What a marvelous sign. This can buy us lunch, on top of the little container of leftover tomato rice we've brought along.
Sete is a picture out of my childhood dreams. We gaze at the quaint, breezy village, the sparkling sea. We elect to spend our five euros at the street market, where vendors are hawking everything from aubergines to lightswitch covers. The air smells of the sea, which is a welcome change from Montpellier, where mounds of dog poo steam in the sun all day. (Sorry, Montpellier. You are one of my favorite cities in the world, but this is an undisputed fact.)
We wander the market, and land upon a warm, motherly woman selling tielle sétoise. We buy one, and some garlic prawns as well. I've had tielle sétoise before- my very first evening in Montpellier, back in September, with the magnificent couple who now rents us our little flat and treats us like daughters. Jean-Marie and Claire had served us this unique pie with a smile, urging us to guess what sea creature was inside. It took some gentle hinting for us to finally guess octopus.
We eat our snacks in a little park, and continue to explore. At a lovely covered market, I shyly ask how much it would cost to try my first oyster. She gives it to me for free, with a small napkin and lemon wedge. It is, of course, briny, slippery, cold and thrilling. We wander over to the shore, a bit confused about where the actual beach is. Eventually, we just hop the stone wall, not caring how the sun-baked rock burns our hands and legs. We find ourselves in a small enclave of sorts, populated by a little group of topless sunbathers from Spain and a scraggly man with his friendly black puppy. We spend hours picking at our rice, nodding off in the sun, and bobbing along in the glittering, warm sea.
We tear ourselves away in the early evening, and on our way to the gare, find a fisherman selling mussels on a street corner. They are covered in sand and seaweed, and are only 2 euros per kilo. We buy some without hesitation, and then catch train back to Montpellier.
The air conditioned train is a relief. We're quiet on the way home, in the hazy way that I usually am after a day immersed in sun and water. We shoot a text message to Lisa. "Don't eat. Don't cook. Moules on their way."
After a brief stop at Intermarche for wine and baguettes, Anna and I burst through the open door of our apartment. Lisa and Ben are drinking wine, awaiting dinner. At this point, I have a fully developed sunburn, so I scrub and de-beard the mussels in my bathing suit. Ben creates a playlist on Grooveshark, and we merrily prepare dinner.
Soon enough, the four of us are sitting outside in Jean-Marie and Claire's peaceful rock patio, enjoying the evening breeze, white wine, and moules marinière. Stories, laughter and music float over the fig trees. The cicadas begin to resume their nightly lullaby. The red sun reluctantly sinks into the stuffy summer sky, giving way to lazy July stars.
It's moments like this where my heart twists, because I know I will not be here forever, and yet I feel so bound to something as simple yet magnificent as a slow summer evening in France.
Around ten, the last scrap of baguette has soaked up what's left of the remaining pools of juices from the mussels. We get our shoes, a few euros, and, with my moment of premature nostalgia complete, head into the festive Montpellier night.
3-4 lbs musells, scrubbed and de-bearded (it's best to wait until the last minute to de-beard, however)
3/4 cup white wine3 shallots, chopped. (Or, use one small onion and 2 cloves of garlic)
1 laurel or bay leaf.
A small knob of butter
Parsley, chopped thinly
1 ripe, chopped tomato (optional)
First, and this may be the most important, is to discard any mussels that are already opened. Some may be just slightly open- try giving them a tap and if they close, that means they're still alive and are okay to cook. Any that have died must be tossed!
In a large pot (a stockpot is a good idea) melt some butter and cook shallots until just translucent, and then add your mussels, wine, and laurel. Bring to a boil and let steam. If you'd like, you can add your chopped tomatoes now. That makes it less traditional, but gives it a sunny, Provençal flair. (Especially nice if you've used garlic instead of shallots!)
Once most of the mussels have opened, remove from heat.
Discard any mussels that have stayed shut.
Sprinkle parsley over your mussels, and season lightly with pepper. You probably won't need salt, but taste and make your own conclusion...
Serve immediately, with lots of nice crusty bread. Soaking up those juices with bread is the best part!