One of the best dishes I've ever eaten
The town of St. Andrews revolves around a castle, a cathedral and of course, a golf course. All of it is situated along a picturesque stretch of Scottish coastline with rocky jetties and expansive beaches. A drive through the surrounding coastal region reveals fishing villages nestled between the tee boxes. If Scotland was going to excel at one type of cuisine, it would assuredly be coming from the sea.
I had just finished exploring the ruins of St. Andrews Cathedral, situated at the tip of the town, overlooking a rock wall breaker, a beach and the sea beyond. I exited the crumbling walls through a side door and stepped onto a cliff walk that skirted down to the beach in one direction and off along the ridge in the other.
I heard crashing waves below and wandered to the right, declining downwards toward the water, past the small remains of a chapel and several signs identifying the historical significance of one of Scotland’s most important religious buildings. I strolled down to the breaker wall that projected out into the water, framing the adjacent beach, East Sands. At the tip of the breaker wall I turned to look at the St. Andrews skyline, which was made up predominantly of the cathedral’s jagged towers, roofs popping haphazardly and the silhouette of St. Andrews Caste standing guard castle further up the shoreline.
The panorama was spectacular, and a different perspective that I had not seen trekking through the village streets. I scanned the scene, noticing some fishing boats and smelling the briny water lapping up at the rocks. In that moment I was hungry.
My stomach rumbled as I retraced my steps back along the water and up to the cathedral. The smell of something delicious wafted along the sea air, prompting me to stop short and engage the man responsible. Since I had last been here outside the cathedral walls, a green umbrella had popped up and a young man with a pedal-powered food cart had positioned himself along the cliff walk. His setup was unlike a traditional hotdog or ice cream cart. It was a bicycle-powered mobile cooking unit - with large pots bubbling up on miniature stove tops and an elongated cooler at the end. Neatly printed in gleaming white on the emerald green cooler was, "The Wee Caboose."
He was selling mussels – that’s it. He had no other options besides freshly caught, local mussels gathered about an hour earlier a little ways up the road. Did I want some? My growling stomach almost answered for me.
I attempted to hand him my money but he said not yet, wait until they were cooked. He pulled a small bucket full from the cooler and dumped them into a creamy broth bubbling on his cooker.
They’d be ready in four minutes, he said. That was four minutes I had to figure out how and why he had gotten to be here on this cliff walk. As it turned out, this was the street vendor’s first time selling his mussels in St. Andrews and I was his very first customer. We chatted about where he came from and where the mussels came from (both in a village nearby) and he gave me some advice on other seaside Scottish towns I should explore (which I did a few days later, to great acclaim). He described his homemade recipe and I compared it loosely to the way seafood is traditionally prepared in New England, which took us off on a tangent about traveling and my hometown of Boston, Massachusetts. We even covered the military and military bases, after a few fighter jets swooped by in the distance.
All in all it was quite an enlightening discussion with this local Scot, and a fair introductory course before my main meal.
He broke off our conversation mid-sentence, knowing exactly when the mussels needed to be removed from the heat. He pulled out a cardboard rub, roughly the size of a sand pail, and tumbled in a couple dozen cooked mussels. He then kept pouring the milky broth until the shells were swimming. I handed him six pounds, he handed me lunch. He clapped me on my shoulder, said it was nice talking and wished me well.
Two passers-by saw the exchange and stopped to ask me how the food was. I hadn’t tried it yet, nor had I barely stepped away from the cart but the smell alone told me it was going to be unforgettable. The couple got two orders.
I took my lunch to a bench sitting along the cliff a few yards away. Flanked by rose bushes behind me, the outline of St. Andrews Castle a few hundred yards further along the cliff walk and the ocean crashing on the rocks below, I dove in. The mussels were perfectly cooked, tender and juicy. I had never tasted shellfish so sweet, even in New England. The broth was creamy with a strong pepper and garlic flavor, and really nothing else. The simplicity was its strongpoint. After I gorged on the mussels, sopped up the juice with the bread, I drank the remaining broth.
The combination of stunning venue and savory snack turned this afternoon into one of my most memorable food experiences. As it turns out, reputations are flimsy things. All it takes to break them is a little mussel.