UPDATE, MAY 29, 2015: Gray’s Blue Dragon is again a welcome fixture at the Crystal Spring Farmers Market this spring. Fortunately, the depleted wild resource seems to be recovering a bit, as Phil Gray is again selling wild specimens harvested in the Harpswell area.

Lobsters are noticeably absent from the chalkboard menu at Conte’s 1894 in Rockland at this time of year. Come summer, diners line up outside the ramshackle restaurant for two split lobsters perched atop pie plates piled high with red sauced-pasta.

My 3 (and a half!)-year-old Theo wouldn’t have ordered the lobster anyway at our recent meal there. It was his inaugural visit, and only the second time his parents had dined there. Sadly, our son rejects most seafood and shellfish out of hand. Only one item appealed to Theo among the restaurant’s ultra-fresh daily specials: the mussels. Theo nodded with gusto for the one sea creature he consistently eats.

We asked for a kid-sized bowl of mussels marinara. Our generous waitress quickly returned with an ample adult portion of pasta, capped with the lacquered shells. Conte’s charged only $6.80 for the dish – a steal that barely covered the cost of the shellfish, I suspect.

Theo picked meat out of a few mollusks, and then focused on his ginger ale, his second time ever drinking soda. Our visiting guests rounding out our table of eight were happy to pass around Theo’s neglected bowl of mussels.

“Do they have french fries here?” asked Theo, as chef Conte rang the last call bell at just 6:48 p.m. – and this on a Friday! Nope. What you see is what you get: seafood; pasta; big communal bowls of salad; dense, pie crust-like bread; and no dessert.

A Belgian moules frites pub would be my son’s platonic ideal of a restaurant. Maybe they’ll feature them at Salt Pine Social, a raw oyster bar that the team behind El Camino and Flipside in Brunswick plans to open in Bath this summer. I see a $23 moules frites is on the menu at Infiniti in Portland – but that’s not a kid-friendly price.

Theo’s love of mussels first emerged in, of all places, a cafeteria – albeit the top-ranked Bowdoin College dining hall where we eat frequently. We missed his first bite. Then 2, he was there with his Bowdoin student babysitter, Nicole Smith, who says a plate of mussels her friend was eating entranced him.

“The best part for him was opening them,” Smith texted me. “He loved to crack them open and grab the treasure inside. He laughed the whole time he did it, and ate like 20 of them!”

So far, Theo lacks his father’s intermittent shellfish allergy – thankfully. We joke that the allergy is divine retribution for my husband Dan’s having chosen a pitiful bar mitzvah service project – the great sacrifice of keeping kosher for a whole month when he was almost 13 – a nod to the Leviticus commandments in the Torah portion he had to memorize. (Kosher law forbids eating shellfish; they still served shrimp at his bar mitzvah party.)

Perhaps that bad karma led this sporadic allergy to rear its ugly head when we dined on Prince Edward Island’s famous farmed mussels while visiting the province on a long day trip up from Halifax. We found ourselves at the cringe-worthily named Flex Mussels. It wasn’t the specifics of the meal, but the puking that ensued I most remember.

That pretty much turned Dan off mussels for life. All the more for Theo and me.

Phil Gray’s The Blue Dragon Mussel Wagon has sold wild ones at our Crystal Spring Farmers Market for years. He has gathered them from tidal beds and rocky ledges around Brunswick and Bath, Harpswell and up towards Thomaston since 1976.

But his supply dwindled this fall after those nasty invasive green crabs decimated the mussel population. When Friends of Casco Bay’s Ann Thayer recently surveyed the blue mussel beds around Harpswell’s Basin Cove by kayak, she found less than 1 percent of the pre-existing population still intact, Gray lamented.

“The only mussels I had were poorer quality than the standards I used to have,” Gray said. “That was the only thing available.”

Now Blue Dragon is noticeably absent at our winter market in Brunswick.

Gray used to tout his choice bivalves as “the best-tasting mussels in Maine,” once supplying the likes of Sam Hayward’s Fore Street, who found their thicker shells stood up to his kitchen’s wood-fired heat. Wild ones have more flavor than cultured ones, Gray said, adding: “To me, the flavor difference is between veal and steak.”

They’re less expensive, too. Gray practically gave his away for no more than $3.50 a pound. But the too few, too-mature mussels he has found of late had thin shells that cracked or developed holes when tumbled in his cleaning machine. Older mussels have developed more pearls, too (all mussels apparently develop pearls – who knew?).

We did get Theo to try some oysters over Christmas by saying they tasted like mussels. The dish was my dad’s famous Ostiones de Mazatlan, a Mexican preparation of shucked oysters baked with buttered breadcrumbs, red salsa and cheddar cheese. And Theo did eat a fried oyster or two at Erica’s Seafood in Basin Cove last summer. This winter, we may be eating more oysters in lieu of mussels.

Fortunately, mussels are increasingly (yet still not widely) cultivated in Maine. We most often encounter rope-culture Bangs Island ones, acclaimed for their uniform plump meat and seemingly less tainted by grit and those hairy little “beards.”

Gray’s Blue Dragon hopes to again be a fixture at the Crystal Spring Farmers Market this spring. But given the depleted wild resource, he thinks he will be selling farmed product from Pemaquid Mussel Farms, which cultures mussels on rafts in the Damariscotta River and Belfast Bay and around Stonington and Lamoine. “The finest mussels available” the company claims, in part, because “the shells are thinner, and they have no objectionable pearls.”

Theo would welcome searching for those pearls if we ever get to eat wild Maine mussels again. I’ll take him mussel-raking if and when the native mollusk recovers in the coming years. In the meantime, let’s “eat those invaders” and get cooking up some green crabs.


Most Maine mussels on menus are farmed. They have a high meat-to-shell ratio, less grit and, as filter-feeders, help clean nitrogen runoff and other pollutants from the water. But longtime Harpswell harvester Phil Gray of The Blue Dragon Mussel Wagon insists local wild mussels have more flavor. This is his recipe. At the Crystal Spring Farmers Market in Brunswick, Gray encouraged my son to sample these mussels. Theo gobbled up at least 10.


Cover the bottom of a stockpot or big sauté pan with olive oil and add 2 or 3 pats of butter. Sauté 2 cloves of chopped garlic, ¼ cup chopped onion and ¼ cup fresh chopped herbs (basil, parsley, cilantro, etc.) for each 2 pounds of mussels. Then add ½ cup wine (Madeira, sherry, any white wine for cooking) for each 2 pounds of mussels. Bring the liquid to a boil.

Add rinsed mussels to pot, cover and cook until the mussels open, 5 to 10 minutes. After they open, cook for about 3 more minutes.

Hold the lid tightly on the pot and shake up and down to distribute the broth over mussels. Pour off broth into bowls for dipping or spoon it over the mussels in each bowl. Serve with crusty bread to complete your feast.

Laura McCandlish is a Brunswick-based food writer and radio producer. Visit her blog, baltimoregon.com, to read about Chilled Mussels on the Half-Shell, a recipe from David Tanis’ “One Good Dish: The Pleasures of a Simple Meal.”

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