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What’s Wrong with Mussels, Neruda?

Pablo Neruda loved the sea, and wine, and food, and women. But there is something fishy about Neruda; he did not write about mussels, and he should have.

Neruda wrote poems about almost everything, Odes to a beautiful nude, a fallen chestnut, the tomato, laziness, loneliness, gold, lemon, salt, insects, and a yellow bird. He so much loved the sea he had two of his three homes on the Chilean coast, one in Isla Negra, “There where the Waves Shatter”, where he could hear, smell, and taste the sea as its mist rolled in each evening (and where he is buried in a simple seaside grave); and another in Valparaiso where he could look down over the entire bay and vibrant port city from his study. He was so much into the sea, he wrote poems about a struggle between seamen and a huge octopus, the ocean, fish and a drowned man, waves, ships, an albatross, marine nights, tides, the fisherman, and even a large tuna in the market. There are so many links between mussels and the other things Neruda liked and revered. Mussels (choritos, cholgas, and choros in Chilean Spanish) have always been the most common mollusk in seafood markets in Chile, the cheapest, and curiously, the least appreciated. In many ways this tasty shellfish represents el pueblo Chileno, the common people of Chile that Neruda expressed so much concern about. In the wild, the mussel shell is somewhat rough, darker than other shellfish, often loaded down and pockmarked from parasites like small barnacles (picorocos), and huddled together in crowded communities valiantly searching for sustenance in the rocky tidal zones of the Chilean coast. Seems to me this would have been a perfect opportunity for Neruda to use the mussel as a metaphor for the tough, but valiant, rich life of Chile’s struggling lower-class masses. But for some reason, he didn’t. I wonder why not.


Dried mussels and other shellfish hanging in the market in Puerto Montt

Another puzzle when it comes to Neruda and mussels is that he did write about Brussels, but without mentioning mussels. Apparently, he was overtaken by solitude when he wrote “Bruselas”, and the last thing on his mind probably was mussels or any other seafood. But I can tell you, if you don’t tangle with a plate or two of moules frites in one of those welcoming restaurants along where the old canal brought boats loaded with fish into the St. Catherine area of the city, the “belly of Brussels”, you haven’t really experienced Brussels. So I still wonder about Neruda, and his mussels blind spot.

When I first lived in Chile in the late ’70s, I worked with a young man, Enrique, who hailed from Arauco, a coastal town south of the large port city of Concepción. Early in my stay in Chile, on one of our many working trips into the forested southern part of Chile, we spent a day in Arauco with Enrique’s family. Enrique, one of his brothers, and his father took me out along a dirt road, to a small wooden house perched on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. It turned out to be the home of a fisherman and his family, and that day they were going to treat el gringo to one of Chile’s most delicious mussels, the mid-sized cholga. The edible meat of some cholgas is very light in color, almost appetizing. But others go from orangish to mud dark, and sitting there raw, still slightly quivering after having their two shells so roughly separated, they did not immediately appear edible to me. I had not even seen these things before, much less let them pass my lips. But this day, under the influence of great social pressure, I was introduced to cholgas a la ostra…..raw mussels. Luckily, Enrique knew what I would need to begin forcing these thick globs of salty slime down my throat: wine, and lots of it. Helped along by gulps of cold white wine, and followed by bites of toasted bread, the smaller of these cholgas would eventually go down. I thought maybe I could help them down by biting them in half. Big mistake. It didn’t help! My hosts saw I was struggling, and not wanting a sick gringo on their hands, they resorted to steaming a few of these mussels, making them much easier to swallow, but alas much less tasty than their raw siblings.

During my early years living in Chile there were several more encounters with Chilean mussels. On a visit to Puerto Montt, at the southern end of the Pan-American Highway, I remember being captivated by the strings of smoked mussels hanging by the hundreds in the open air seafood market. Then there was the time I was spending the weekend in Pelluhue with the Fernandez and Pedreros families, in matriarch Sra. Esperanza’s summer home that to this day sits majestically overlooking the Pacific Ocean (fortunately well above tsunami level). That day my future brother-in-law Claudio arrived triumphantly carrying a large burlap sack filled with huge cholgas, and everyone set about to open them and gulp them down with lemon, toasted bread, and again lots of cold white wine. Still not yet a favorite of mine, I faked eating several, but did get my share of the wine. As I recall this event, there was quite a line for the outhouse that night around 2 AM, but I was the exception.

And there was the time Ximena and her sister María Paz went camping with my friend Dave (you’ll also recognize him in other postings as Flick) and me, along with Ximena’s aunt Angélica and my Peace Corps volunteer colleague and future uncle Charley, in Tolhuaca National Park. We had gone to this idyllic spot in the southern lake region to spend several days of hiking, fishing, and, well, doing what young people do. Mistakingly counting on our abilities to catch enough fish to eat, and not spending much time actually fishing, we had almost run out of food a couple of days prior to the day we were going to be picked up and taken out of the park. Angélica found some canned mussels (the smaller choritos in this case), and made a soup with them. I guess it got us through the day, but I also recall the soup giving off a terrible smell while it was boiling, which may be why we have never again made soup out of canned mussels. We now know, however, that fresh mussels make a very good soup (caldillo de choritos).

Sauteed Chilean mussels

Sauteed Chilean mussels

I also have fond memories of outings we made on the weekends in Santiago, travelling by bus or Ximena’s family’s “Citroeneta”, up into the Arrayan Valley in the Andes, behind Santiago, where we would spend the day cooling off in the river, basking in the sun, drinking huge amounts of wine from straw-wrapped garrafas, grilling flank steak (palanca) on wood fires, and of all things, eating steamed mussels. We loved steaming mussels in wine in a simple pot over the fire on these outings, and we devoured them with gusto, some of us (mostly the Chileans) because of the taste , and some of us (mostly the gringos) because of the wine you needed to wash them down .

Over the years since those days when we were young and experimenting with most everything set in front of us, Chile has greatly developed the processing and marketing of many food products, including seafood, and I have eaten a whole lot of mussels; in fact, it is now one of my favorite foods. Jim Stuart, on his blog “Eating Chile”, informs us that Chileans consume only about 7 kilos of seafood per capita (half the world average), but has become the 8th most important exporter of seafood, exporting over ten times the amount of seafood they consume per capita. One area of acknowledged progress is the production, packaging, and export of mussels. As a result of overexploitation of mussels in the 1940s, efforts were made to establish cultivation, especially in the waters around the island of Chiloé. The first farmed mussels entered the market in the 1960s, reaching 60,000 tons in 2003, 85% of which were exported, mostly frozen or canned, to Europe. Advertisements for Chilean mussels include the ribbed mussel (cholga), blue mussel (chorito) and the giant mussel (choro zapato). Internationally, the Chilean mussel is well accepted (according to Jim Stuart) as a “delicious, clean, nutritious, environmentally sustainable and socially responsible seafood”. In fact, in the Washington, DC suburb supermarkets we can buy dinners of frozen Chilean mussels, in either tomato and garlic butter sauce or just garlic butter sauce. All you have to do is heat it up, and frankly, these mussels are great served on pasta or simply eaten as is.

Box of frozen Chilean mussels, sold in U.S.

Box of frozen Chilean mussels, sold in U.S.

In our home and among our friends, Ximena has for years been renowned for her mussels. She prepares them with spaghetti, sautéed in olive oil and hot pepper, in the oven with parsley butter, and simply steamed with fresh tomato, garlic, onion, parsley, and white wine. The sauce that is produced in the latter is totally sinful, to be eaten by the spoonful or soaked up in rustic Tuscan bread.  Her paella features Chilean mussels, and as such is unsurpassed.

Chilean paella

Chilean paella

While most of Chile’s seafood is being exported, Chileans do love certain seafood dishes. But it is interesting to note that while the mussel is a key ingredient to traditional dishes like the curanto, empanadas de mariscos and arroz a la valenciana, and while it is now one of the best known, most available, and least expensive shellfish in the markets, it is not seen much in restaurants or served in Chilean homes. There are exceptions to this generality, and occasionally in wedding receptions or seafood restaurants in the central Santiago fish market and along Chile’s coast, you will find choritos en salsa verde, sopa marina, and an occasional cold salad with steamed mussels, but the chorito is not a broadly eaten food. In Arlington, Virginia, there is a very popular restaurant named Harry’s Tap Room that features 7 different mussel dishes, served much like they are in Brussels, Paris, and Rome. I am unaware of any similar restaurant in Chile. You would think that Chileans, who are lightening fast to copy cultural trends and who predictably trace their roots back to Europe whether they actually go their or not, would jump on this opportunity to make an internationally prized food their own. But they aren’t. The mussel is nutritious, readily available, relatively inexpensive, and easy to prepare. But, with the exception of young, hip Chilean kids who refer (or at least used to) to anything or anyone cool as “choro” (as in “ese gallo es rechoro”, i.e., “that guy is really cool”), Chileans continue to hold the mussel in low esteem.

So after all, Neruda ignored the mussel, and Chilean gastronomy seems to be following his lead and ignoring the mussel as well. Maybe Chileans simply do not like mussels, or maybe too many of them had early experiences like some of mine that make them distrusting of mussels. On the other hand, maybe this can be explained by some sort of broad reticence to embrace a food that is seen to be too “lower class”, in spite of its merits. What other explanation is there? Besides, I have heard the suggestion that Neftali Reyes Basoalto changed his name to Pablo Neruda for much the same reason. Maybe I am on to something here. To figure this out, though, there will have to be much more field research. Any volunteers to assist me with that?

Written on June 27, 2010, in McLean, Virginia

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David Joslyn
David Joslyn, after a 45-year career in international development with USAID, Peace Corps, The Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA), The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, and private sector consulting firms, divides his time between his homes in Virginia and Chile. Since 2010, David has been writing about Chile and Chileans, often based upon his experience with the Peace Corps in Chile and his many travels throughout the country with family and friends.
David Joslyn

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