Sweet, plump, native blue mussels are being grown in Port Phillip without nothing artificial in sight, writes Richard Cornish.

What is it?
In the clear waters off the Bellarine Peninsula, where the cold currents flow through The Heads, thousands of mussels are grown on ropes suspended in the water column. Founded in 1986, Sea Bounty was one of the first players in Victoria’s mussel farming industry. Starting with a lease covering just three hectares of the bay, the farms now cover 150 hectares of open water at different locations, and produces a thousand tonnes of mussels each year.

Who’s producing it?
Lance Wiffen was a Port Phillip scallop fisher until he started growing shellfish instead of dredging for them. “Moving from what is considered an environmentally destructive industry to growing mussels has been a massive change,” he says. “Mussels are filter feeders and actually improve water quality. Their shells are made of calcium carbonate and capture carbon dissolved in the water from the atmosphere. They are natural carbon sinks. It makes me proud.” He was joined in recent years by Phil Lamb, formerly of Spring Bay Mussels in Tasmania, who has taken on processing and marketing.

Where’s it from?
Sea Bounty’s small fleet of boats is based at the pier at Portarlington. They service the farms at the three leases off the coast of Clifton Springs, Portarlington, and in the deeper waters at Pinnace Channel, about 10km north of Rye. Sea Bounty also has a state-of-the-art hatchery nearby where the mussel spat (baby mussels) are bred for their farm and others.

Why is it different?
Spat attach themselves to long nylon ropes using their fine, thread-like filaments, and are held in place by cotton stockings. Those ropes are connected to a mainline that floats on the surface suspended by buoys. Over the next 12 to 18 months, the mussels feed on naturally occurring phytoplankton, cleaning the water as they grow. The mussels are thinned, a technique that strips juvenile mussels from the ropes to prevent overcrowding, and the ropes are moved around to allow optimal access to fresh seawater. Sea Bounty has leases in different parts of the bay, each with its own different marine microclimates and water conditions, which means no matter what time of the year there’s always a supply of mussels in prime condition.

Who’s a fan?
Chef Aaron Turner from Igni in Geelong has been using Sea Bounty mussels since he opened his first restaurant, Loam, on the west coast in 2009. “I’ve developed a strong relationship with Lance and his team,” says Turner. “His mussels are consistently well balanced. Sweet with a lovely bitter undertone. They are a perfect size, and they take on the smoke from our wood grill to give a light smoky touch.” At the end of summer, he likes to lightly steam the mussels to open them, toss them through a fermented bullhorn pepper paste, and then stuff them into zucchini flowers grilled over wood to finish. Ben Shewry from Attica in Ripponlea first tried Sea Bounty mussels on Lance Wiffen’s boat over 12 years ago. “Lance pulled mussels straight off the ropes, put them in a plastic bag, and microwaved them,” says Shewry. “They were just done. Awesome. Lance reckons most people overcook mussels. I agree.” Shewry’s favourite way of cooking mussels is to shuck them, no easy task, crumb the meat and deep fry them to give a crunchy golden shell around a morsel of mussel sitting in the seawater in which they grew. “Sea Bounty mussels are one of the main sources of sustainable sea protein that we use,” says Shewry.

Where can I get them?
You can buy them fresh off the pier at Portarlington, or eat them cooked at the Mussel Pot at the Prahran or Queen Vic Markets. Buy them fresh and ready to cook from scores of fishmongers around the state, and head to seabounty.com.au for a full list of stockists.

By Richard Cornish