Mussel fans from near and far will descend on Whidbey Island this weekend to take part in the annual Penn Cove Mussel Festival, which runs through the weekend with a variety of mussel-bound events.
The shellfisherific festival originated 15 years ago at the Captain Whidbey Inn in Coupeville and grew steadily over the years in reputation and stature to its current culinary glory. Many local restaurants now participate in the event, and hungry folks fly in from all over just to partake of Penn Cove’s acclaimed little critters.
John Stone, owner and proprietor of the Captain Whidbey Inn, said people have come from as far away as Belgium to celebrate the succulent mollusk.
“When we were the only ones doing it, the town was amazed at all the people that came here,” Stone said. And the rest is history.
This year, for instance, nine Coupeville restaurants are participating in the festival’s Mussel Chowder-off competition, which for the last two years has been won by chef Simon Bargh at Christopher’s Restaurant on Front Street.
At the Captain Whidbey Inn, the weekend is packed with all sorts of mollusk-centric events. There will be mussel cooking demos on Saturday, and on Sunday the Jefferds brothers of Penn Cove Shellfish will give a presentation on mussel farming. Stone will also be giving mussel farm tours on Saturday aboard his sailing vessel the Cutty Sark.
Of course, the main thing is the eating, and the Inn’s head chef, Steve Clarke, has some exotic mussel-related dishes planned, including Italian mussel soup, Cajun mussel pasta, mussel pizza and mussel cakes, along with more traditional dishes like steamed ginger or Stone family mussels.
Clarke said that on festival weekend, the Captain Whidbey Inn goes through about 150 pounds of mussels, pulled fresh from the nearby waters of Penn Cove.
“Few people get them as fresh as we get them here,” said Stone. “We get them fresher than anywhere in the world.”
Mussel Fest freaks as interested in quantity as quality can enter the mussel-eating contest, in which people gulp as many of the things as they can in a mere minute. Stone said folks typically go through about two pints in that span of time.
Last year’s winner, Pete Sobotta of Oak Harbor, gave these mussel eating tips: “Stimulate your appetite by partaking in the mussel chowder contest. It is imperative that you try every restaurant’s chowder. By then you will have a hankerin’ for more and that will give you the added boost needed to win. Having your wife cheering you on helps, too!”
Stone said that since last year’s champion has moved from the area, this year’s contest is wide open. Consider it a challenge.
“We take this stuff seriously, but not too seriously,” Stone said. “It’s all in good fun. If you’re not having fun, you’re not doing it right.”