“Bold, briny, and blue” was the theme of the 2017 Penn Cove Mussel Fest that’s held every March in cute-as-a-button Coupeville on Whidbey Island, Washington. This year’s musselicious fest drew several thousand lovers of the world famous Penn Cove mussels for two days of mussel chowder tasting, live music, mussel cooking demos from top area chefs, a mussel eating contest, and even guided boat tours of the mussel farm in Penn Cove’s pristine waters. Proceeds from this tasty event benefit the Boys & Girls Club and fund a $20,000 college scholarship awarded annually to a local student majoring in Science Technology Engineering or Math (STEM).
The Penn Cove Mussel Fest kicked off Friday night with the Mussel Mingle. For three hours, ticket holders enjoyed Prairie Dog Polish dogs and special mussel dishes prepared by Serendipity Catering, artisan beers from Flyers, and wines selected by Coupeville’s bayleaf. Broken Banjo provided lively tunes.
The Mussel Fest swung into full action on Saturday under sunny skies and mild temperatures. The popular mussel chowder tasting and competition quickly sold out with buyers scooping up 2,500 tickets. Each $10 ticket was good for chowder samples at four different Coupeville businesses, including seafood restaurants, coffee houses, a Thai restaurant, a wood-fired Italian restaurant, a pizza place, and more. Mussel lovers who purchased all five tickets could taste up to 20 different chowders!
A number of restaurants and organizations offered chowder tastings within walking distance of the downtown Coupeville Rec Hall that served as Mussel Fest headquarters. Free mini-buses shuttled festival-goers to more distant area restaurants like Ciao, The Tyee, Phad Thai, The Captain Whidbey Inn, and others.
Cooking Pros, Kids’ Activities, and More
Inside Mussel Fest headquarters, guests enjoyed mussel-cooking demonstrations on the hour. Some of the area’s best chefs offered demos and samples of their fare, including Robert Spaulding, Executive Chef of Elliott’s Oyster, Matt Jenke, owner and Executive Chef at Lecosho, Larry Cordova, Corporate Executive Chef of Marriott International, Chris Garr, Executive Chef at Ivar’s Acres of Clams, and Sam Burkhart, Executive Chef of Tom Douglas’ renowned Etta’s and Seatown Restaurants.
There was also some amazing mussel artwork that transformed black and white mussel shells into swirling images and patterns. There was also a raffle for two sets of round trip tickets anywhere Alaska Airlines flies with odds of winning about 1 in 250.
Kids weren’t left out either. At the Whidbey Island Masonic Lodge, kids enjoyed art and activities, including face painting. One of the most popular activities was Children’s Fishin’ Off the Pier where kids ‘fished’ for treats and treasures, including a ‘golden mussel.’
In the afternoon, a couple dozen adventurous souls dove into steaming bowls of Penn Cove Mussels to see who could eat the most mussels in the shortest time. Onlookers urged on their favorites with shouts and whistles and plenty of laughter.
Outside Mussel Fest headquarters, vendors offered chowder tastings and sold big bowls of savory mussels. There was continuous live music, a beer and wine garden, and a campfire complete with marshmallows for roasting.
On Sunday, the day we attended, the March weather turned and it was cool and blustery. But the weather didn’t deter the enthusiastic crowds. After we getting our chowder tickets, our complimentary chowder cups, and a 2 p.m. slot for a boat tour of the mussel farm, we were entertained by Lecosho’s owner and chef Matt Jenke who demystified making paella style mussels.
Cooking in a massive flat pan over a pop-up propane grill, Chef Matt added Spanish chorizo and chopped serrano peppers and let the sausage ‘sweat.’ Then he added Arborio rice and onion he’d par-cooked, a pinch of saffron, and chicken stock. To season the dish, he added sofrito, a mixture of celery, sweet peppers, sweet onion, and sweet paprika he’d previously cooked with olive oil. He spread out the rice, allowing it to get crispy on the edges. Then he added a huge pile of shiny black Penn Cove mussels to the center of the pan and popped on a lid.
Heavenly smells of briny mussels, redolent paprika, spicy Spanish sausage, sweet onions and peppers filled the room and made our mouths water. In just a few minutes, Chef Matt removed the lid in a cloud of steam revealing glistening black mussels, their shells open (indicating they’re cooked), on a beautiful bed of yellow rice. The dish was as gorgeous to look at as it was to eat.
Chef Matt scooped up generous samples for us to try. The mussels were tender and slightly sweet and the rice was flavorful and delicious.
Buses to Chowder Nirvana
After the cooking demo, RFT Editor and photographer Anne Weaver and I hopped aboard the Mussel Bus Shuttle to begin our mussel chowder tasting. We’d procured all five tickets so we could taste all the offerings. The buses, which ran continuously, stopped at multiple locations and we never waited more than a few minutes for our next bus.
Each chowder contestant was given the same amount of Penn Cove Mussels and told to “make their best mussel chowder.” The diversity of interpretations was impressive. At Ciao, an Italian restaurant featuring wood-fired pizza and Italian dishes, the tomato-based chowder took on a decidedly smoky flavor. At Phad Thai, they made a traditional Tom Kah soup using mussels with ingredients like coconut milk, galangal, lemongrass, and Thai basil that made a slightly sweet and deeply flavorful soup.
Christopher’s offered a seriously delicious take on mussel chowder, adding puréed Hubbard squash that gave their chowder a lovely sweetness and a gorgeous light yellow color. It was one of our top picks.
We almost skipped Pizza Factory’s chowder, but we were glad we didn’t. The young woman serving their chowder told us, “After eight years of not winning, we were determined to make a really great chowder this year. We spent hours studying U-Tube videos about the proper way to handle mussels.” All that work paid off for Pizza Factory. They took a traditional cream-based approach to their chowder with potatoes, onions and just the right amount of bacon with plenty of mussels. In our opinion, Pizza Factory’s chowder had the best mussel flavor of all the chowders.
Some chowders weren’t to our liking. A few had too much thyme or celery seed, rending them overly herbaceous; some were too liberal with hot peppers, the heat overwhelming the delicate mussels; still others went, in our opinion, too far afield with non-traditional ingredients like hominy. And a number lacked enough of the key ingredient—mussels. That might be because it was Sunday and chowder pots were starting to run low. Or perhaps some restaurants used some of their allotted Penn Cove mussels in other dishes. We noticed specials like mussel pizza, smoked mussels, mussel stir-fry, and others appearing on a number of menus.
Touring the Mussel Farm
Tasting all the chowders, even the ones we weren’t crazy about, was super fun. We dropped off our tickets with our selections for Best Chowder filled in. And by the time our 2 p.m. date with the mussel farm boat rolled around, we were stuffed and satisfied.
The one-hour boat tour was offered on one of the Pacific Express boats, a comfortable closed-cabin affair with tables for four or six. It took just a few minutes to cruise from the Coupeville dock to Penn Cove Mussel Farm’s large mussel rafts floating just off shore. Thirty-one years ago, Penn Cove began farming mussels in the rich, clean waters of Penn Cove. They were the first in the U.S. to farm mussels and, today, they’re the largest mussel aqua culture operation in the country.
The reason the company chose Penn Cove, our guide told us, is that mussels grow naturally here. The water is nutrient-rich with constant fresh water from the Skagit River. The cove is also relatively shallow—about 60 feet—and the Olympic Rain Shadow makes the climate sunnier, which makes the water warmer and fosters algae, food for the mussels. The company doesn’t seed or plant mussels here. Nature does it for them. All they do is provide a place for the mussels to attach, which they do with 42 rafts with 20’ lines where up to 3,000 mussels per line grow. And in these rich waters, it takes only 12-14 months for the baby mussels (called spat) to grow to harvest size, making Penn Cove mussels fat and tender.
Penn Cove Mussel Company has custom built harvesting barges to collect, sort, and clean the mussels (cut off the ‘beards’). It makes their operation efficient and enables them to deliver fresh (not frozen) mussels to restaurants in the area and around the country. “Penn Cove mussels harvested on Monday arrive on lunch plates in Seattle and on dinner plates in New York City on Tuesday,” our guide told us.
It’s 3 p.m. when we pull up to the dock. As we walk toward our car, folks are still lining up in front of steaming pots of chowder. We smile, knowing we’ll be back next March to sample even more Penn Cove Mussel Chowder. Who knows? Maybe we’ll even enter the mussel-eating contest. What delicious idea! —Story by Bobbie Hasselbring, RFT Editor, Photos by Anne Weaver, RFT Editor