I met one of my heroes yesterday at the PEI International Shellfish Festival. I say “hero” even though I had never known his name until I met him, but Jozef Van Den Bremt changed the way a lot of us eat. A Belgian immigrant who wanted to find a way to contribute to his adopted country and his new home province of Prince Edward Island, he set out in the 1970s to figure out how to grow blue mussels. It’s not that mussels were uncommon.
They cling to every rock and pier in the North Atlantic–and every one of those wild mussels is full of grit in its flesh. To get sweet, juicy and grit-free mussels, you need to cultivate them on a substrate where the sand doesn’t wash into them. Van Den Bremt went to Holland and to Spain to see how they did it, and quickly figured that the winter ice around PEI would crush the raft environments that Europe used. Through trial and error, he developed a rope strategy, producing his first cultured mussels in 1978 for PEI Mussel King, Inc. They sold for 40 cents a pound. Mussels today bring in $26.7 million a year to the province–and give us all a lot of good eating. What Van Den Bremt likes best is that the mussel industry is spread all around the island among individuals. “The money,” he says, “doesn’t go into corporate coffers. It goes to the fishermen-farmers.”
So I count it an honor to have shaken the hand of the Belgian immigrant who showed us North Americans just how good a mussel can be. Joe’s proud, too, that it was his gift back to Canada. He estimates that mussel aquaculture has brought $1 billion to Prince Edward Island in the last 36 years.