A mussel is a type of bivalve mollusk that can be found in fresh water lakes, streams, and creeks, along with the salty intertidal zone where oceans meet the shore. Like many other shellfish, they are cultivated and caught in the wild to serve as food for humans, and they also have a number of predators in the natural environment. This mollusk is also much more popular in Europe and parts of the Asia than North America, where only a small portion of the population is interested in mussels as a food source.
Mussels share many characteristics with clams, another bivalve widely eaten by humans. They have a more oblong than oval shell, however, with the dorsal region located towards the bottom of the shells rather than in the middle, as is common with clams. Mussels typically have a dark shell, in blue, green, or brown, and they come in a range of sizes. In freshwater, they typically burrow into the bottom of a body of water, allowing harvesters to dig them up relatively easily. An intertidal mussel anchors itself to a rock with a thick cluster of very strong fibers that can be difficult to dislodge.
These mollusks reproduce sexually, with the young hatching loose in the water. The larvae float until they reach a suitable living space, which distributes them more widely and gives them a better chance at survival. The primary diet of a mussel is plankton, microscopic one-celled organisms which float freely in salt and fresh water. Along with other shellfish, mussels are filter feeders, sucking in water and nutrients to eat.
Because of the way they eat, mussels can also collect toxins such as those contained in a red tide. For this reason, it is dangerous to harvest them at certain times of the year, and any potential harvester should always check on ocean conditions before collecting and eating them. Assuming that they are safe to eat, mussels are more tender and flavorful when they are small, and they should also be cooked while they are still alive. A living one will generally tightly clamp its shell shut, so if it has an open shell, the cook should tap it gently to see if it snaps shut, indicating that it is alive and good to eat.
The flesh is slightly sweet, and they can be very tender if they are well cooked. Popular preparations include steaming, smoking, and cooking in soups and sauces. The cuisine of many European coastal regions incorporates these mollusks, which are also canned for export elsewhere.