Mussels with Guinness and Gruyère

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Glasgow’s an amazing city. I’ve not been there for almost ten years but when I walked out of the railway station last Thursday afternoon I was immediately reminded that it’s a place unlike anywhere I’ve visited in England. And it’s difficult to quantify exactly what it is that makes it feel so unique. The light perhaps, ever so slightly greyer than in the south, at this time of year certainly. The ground, always wet even though it didn’t rain the whole time I was there, the increased moisture in the air I suppose and the temperature not rising enough to evaporate it. The buildings, that oppressive red/brown heavy and tall and laid out in a grid like New York City. The background cacophony of Glaswegian accents which when raised deliver with them either an air of menace, or worse potentially unwelcome über-friendliness for a somewhat shy and overwhelmed visiting Englishman who fears that dismissal will instigate a personality u-turn and the exclamation “oh, d’ye think ye’ar bhetta than me pal?”. But it’s a brilliant city and I love it. It’s raw, it’s varied and it’s exciting.

I was there for four nights performing at The Stand Comedy club in Woodlands Road. And while we’re talking about it, at the risk of sounding gushing, it’s one of the best comedy clubs in the country. Everything’s perfect: not too big, audience facing the front, audience there for comedy as opposed to being there to celebrate/get drunk/have a disco etc., good beer, polite professional friendly staff, and slightly grubby, knocked-back and ‘alternative’ (the venue, not the staff, well not all of them).

I was staying with friends in Dennistoun, a tube and train ride away from the gig, and a journey where, on two of the four occasions when I had to make it back in the evening after the show, I was forced into conversation with the over-friendly and staggeringly blind-drunk Glaswegians that I eluded to earlier. Constant hand-shaking and offers of swigs from their cans. Terrifying.

The family I stayed with are the wife and children (Angie, Stan and Lilly) of my friend and mentor Ian Smith who died last summer at the tragically premature age of 55. Ian was one of the founders of the legendary Zap Club in Brighton in the early 80s, long-before my time. I first encountered him when I saw French anarchic circus Archaos in Edinburgh in the early 90s and Ian was the hugely charismatic ringmaster. I later worked at Archaos myself, cooking funnily enough, when they did a stint in London in 1992. It was the experience of seeing them and working with them that kick-started me as a performer when my friend Leo Taylor (now one third of Mercury-prize nominees ‘The Invisible‘) and I devised a juggling, magic, fire-eating show under the banner Bedlamania. I encountered Ian again when I’d moved down south and Ian and his wife Angie (now based in Glasgow) visited the art school in Brighton where I was studying on the same course that he had done ten years before. They’d been employed to lead us in a large-scale site-specific project that was part of the festival – an event called ‘The Happening’ where we were dressed as tattooed chefs, (food, again) wielding fire and wooden spoons and pushing carts made from upturned trestle tables which were then inverted and turned into dining tables once we reached our destination.

We became friends and in those early days before either of us had kids both my wife and I travelled to Glasgow on numerous occasions to work with his company, Mischief La Bas, which he and Angie formed post-Archaos, performing mad street-theatre in the run-down parts of Glasgow. Later he got us involved in two shows that were performed in The Albany Theatre in Deptford, ‘The Feast’ and ‘Feast 2’, shows which featured again the tattoo-faced chefs who’d been created for the Brighton performance some years before. Again revolving around food it was a twisted cabaret and circus show, hosted by Ian and aided by the performing chefs who genuinely cooked a meal in the theatre kitchen every day and served it to the audience in the interval. (I imagine you can now see the influence all this had on me).

I wouldn’t be the performer I am without the guidance, encouragement and inspiration that Ian gave me. I’ve so much to thank him for.

Ian’s son Stanley is an outstanding cook and while I was staying with them (aside from a superb Mackerel paté that he threw together) he cooked mussels with Guinness and gruyère cheese. I confess that when Angie said that’s what Stan was going to make I warily wondered what it would be like, suspecting that it wouldn’t work.

It works.

It’s possibly one of the nicest mussel dishes I’ve ever had. The Guinness is creamy anyway, and not too bitter, and that combined with the salty liquor that comes out of the mussels, a bit of cream, and then the gruyère, some melted into the sauce, some sitting on top as a garnish makes it’s just divine. We had it with bread which we tore up and dipped in the juice. I got it in my beard and down my front and I didn’t care. Stanley roughly described the recipe to me, so here’s how I did it today. It might differ from his method, but it tasted bloody fantastic.

Mussels with Guinness and Gruyère (for 2)
1 kilo mussels (sorted-through, cleaned and de-bearded)
1 small onion or shallot (sliced)
2 cloves garlic (sliced)
a big knob of butter
200ml Guinness (I used the bottled non-draught one)
150ml double cream
150g gruyere cheese, grated
black pepper (lots)
a bunch of parsley (chopped)
pinch of brown sugar

In a heavy lidded pan sweat the onion in the butter on a medium heat for a few minutes before adding the garlic for a further minute. Then turn the heat up high and throw in the mussels. Stir them around for 30 seconds, pour in the Guinness and put the lid on. After a minute or two the mussels will have all opened. Take off the lid, pour in the cream, stir everything around and then dish out the mussels into warmed bowls with a slotted spoon. Return the pan to the heat and bring it to the boil reducing by about half. Turn off the heat and add half the cheese and half the parsley and the tiny pinch of sugar, lots of black pepper and a little salt if it needs it (it might not). Then spoon the sauce over the mussels, add the rest of the parsley and the gruyère as a garnish with lots more black pepper. Enjoy with the rest of the bottle of Guinness and some bread.
(George)

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