On december 11th I was invited to join Carrefour on a trip to Yerseke, Zealand (the Netherlands) for a behind the scenes tour in a mussel and oyster firm.We were invited on a tour at Vette & Verhaart’s firm who sell their food under the Qualimer label, which you might have seen in stores before. I happily accepted their invitation and I was supercurious to find out more about how mussels are cultivated, harvested and prepared to be send to stores and I was so surprised to find out the amount of work that this process takes! It was an absolutely fantastic day and I’m very excited I get to share my experience with you all today. I feel like it’s really important to find out where your food comes from, cause it will tell you alot about how healthy and sustainable the process is and if your food is of good quality or not. Hope you’ll find this behind the scenes as interesting as I did! On top of it all, we got to enjoy a wonderful lunch of fresh oysters and mussels, simply delicious! Thanks again to Jan-Willem Verhaart, Carrefour, the captain and the chef for inviting me along!
Vette & Verhaart
Vette & Verhaart is a family firm in the true sense of the word. Jan Vette founded his mussel and oyster business at the end of the 19th century. It is now more than a hundred years ago that the company was founded (they once even had the Russian tsar as an oyster consumer), making them the oldest mussel and oyster company in Yerseke, Zealand, the Netherlands. Today, the fourth generation of the Vette family works in the company and we actually got a tour from one of the owners, Jan-Willem Vette. What makes this company interesting is the fact that they do everything themselves, from cultivating the mussels and oysters to transporting them and everything else in between. They don’t import any mussels from other countries or include other companies in the process so you’ll always be absolutely sure where your mussels come from and in what conditions they were cultivated.
From mussel seed to cultivation plot & wet warehouses
Now where does it all begin? It all starts with the harvesting of mussel seeds (teeny tiny mussels of about 1cm in size), which they do twice a year. Those seeds are then transferred to cultivation plots or beds, where they’ll stay for around 2,5 years to develop into market-size mussels of about 5-6cm. During those years they are sometimes moved to other beds where there’s an optimum supply of food and they’ll have the space to grow but also to remove predators, such as starfish and crabs. Although they are sometimes moved, they will always stay in their farms in the Wadden Sea and in the Eastern Scheldt, two areas with the healthiest water conditions in Europe. Mussels truly are a product of the sea and it also simply depends on the weather conditions and the sea whether or not we’ll have big mussels this year or they’ll remain small.
As soon as the mussels are ready for consumption they are harvested. When they are large enough, the mussels are dredged up and taken to the mussel auction in Yerseke by the mussel growers. Here, a random sample is taken by employees from the Dutch Fish Products Board, Productschap Vis. The result of the sampling is announced before the auction, and then the mussel traders can bid for the batches on offer. After the auction, the mussels are immediately transferred to the mussel beds, also called ‘wet warehouses’. We got to go along on a trip to these wet warehouses to experience it for ourselves!
The boat that we were on was transporting 80 000kg of mussels and what happens is as follows: the boat will sail onto the designated plot and will then tilt left and right(safe to say it makes you pretty nauseous) while sailing in the same pattern the entire time (in the shape of an 8). On each side of the boat there are valves through which the mussels will be brought away back into the water. By simply opening these valves you’ll get an overpressure of water which will wash the mussels back into the sea and by sailing in this specific pattern, the mussels will stay together and they will be sown evenly over the beds. During this process you’ll also see loads of seagulls flying along the boat, picking up mussels that stay afloat. The mussels stay in these wet warehouses for between 1,5 and 2 weeks. During this period, the mussels regain their strength and clean themselves. They are then in optimum condition, free from grit and suitable for further processing.
Purging, cleaning, inspecting and grading
After those 1,5/2 weeks Vette & Verhaart transport the mussels from their beds by boat back to their cleaning plant. Upon arrival the mussels are immediately put into special tanks where they are rinsed with fresh water from the Eastern Scheldt for around 12 hours. By doing so, any sand and grit from the mussels is removed. The mussels then go through the de-bearding machine which separates any mussels still attached to each other. Now that the mussels have been cleaned and separated, they move on to the next stage, where they are visually inspected. Any mussels that are below standard (damaged for instance) and anything that doesn’t belong (crabs, starfish, ..) is removed manually.
They then move on to the sorting machine that automatically separates or grades the mussels into different sizes, which is also clearly stated on each packaging so that you know exactly what you’re buying. In the Zeeland mussel sector, they work with a standard grading system in which the mussels are graded according to the number of mussels that goes in a kilo. These grades are as follows:
|Mussels per kilo
Cooling and packaging
Now that all the mussels have been sorted into different sizes, they are once again put back into the water (cooled and purified water from the Eastern Scheldt), this time according to their size. The mussels remain in the pools until the customer’s order arrives (packed to order). To guarantee the best condition of these mussels, they are transported to the packaging department by a first in first out system. Samples are also taken to determine the amount of meat in the mussels.
We’re getting close to the end of our mussel journey now, as there’s only one stage left: packaging! Vette & Verhaart actually have a patented packaging system and they are the only ones allowed to sell their unique packaging where the mussels are packed in pure, salt water and under vacuum in leak-free trays (well apart from the ones that are packed in the traditional jute sacks of course). This way the mussels retain their freshness and taste en route to the us all! Vette & Verhaart is also in charge of the logistics and since they own every other part of the process as well, they can assure that the mussels will reach consumers within 24hours so they are insanely fresh!
So there you have it, we’ve reached the end of the long journey from mussel seed to our plates. One last fun fact though: did you know that Belgians are the biggest Dutch mussels consumers? About 60% of all mussels are consumed in Belgium, with an average of 30 MILLION kilos of Dutch mussels each year, which is about 3kg per every single Belgian person. And I have some great news for Belgian mussel lovers cause Carrefour has added Vette & Verhaart to their Quality Chain Label, which guarantees mussels with at least 30% meat, who are caught in specific fishing areas (through sustainable fishing) who are cultivated & harvested in Zealand (nothing will be imported) and who are little taste bombs of very high quality. But no matter where you live, always look for the MSC ecolabel on fish, mussels or anything else caught in the sea as it will guarantee sustainable seafood!