Three Chimneys Masterclass: shellfish risotto

At the Three Chimneys on the Isle of Skye, executive chef Michael Smith uses mussel stock for sauces, batters and vegetables as well as his shellfish risotto. Michael Raffael reports

It’s one of those culinary “no-nos” at the back of a chef’s mind. He knows he’s not supposed to mix both cheese and fish in a risotto. That’s why a shellfish risotto is less rich. What’s more, it isn’t possible to disguise an otherwise bland flavour with Parmesan or a poor texture with knobs of butter or cream.

Using mussels rather than fish for the stock base helps to achieve a pronounced umami taste. They, along with scallops and clams, contain a significant amount of naturally occurring glutamate (three times as much as bonito flakes and twice as much as prawns).

That isn’t the only thing going for them. At about £5 per kg, they are probably the cheapest form of shellfish on the market. Modern farming methods mean they are available almost all year round. Any risks associated with toxic algae – the red tide – have been kept at bay by coastal warning systems.

They are also, the cultivated ones, a sustainable source of seafood at a time when the number of species we’re meant to be eating is shrinking. More important, they are popular. Many people who would turn down a raw oyster will tuck into a bowl of moules marinière.

At the Three Chimneys on the Isle of Skye, Michael Smith uses his mussel stock for sauces, batters and vegetables as well as his risotto. In his kitchen, he says, it’s almost more precious than the mussels themselves.





There are three different sources of indigenous mussels in the British Isles:
● Wild (dredged)
● Ranched, ie grown on managed beds
● Rope culture

The main difference between them relates to the amount of handling they require.

Wild mussels may be covered in weed and barnacles. They often contain sand or grit. Their size and shell thickness varies. Dredged mussels may have broken shells. Their beards (the byssus, which mussels use to attach themselves to the ropes or rocks) can be tough and hard to remove.

Ranched and rope-grown mussels need 
less work, and the yield per kg is easier to predict. Minimum size, based on shell length, varies in the UK, but the smallest permitted use is 45mm.

The spawning season is unpredictable even within a single location. In Scotland, it’s usually between May and September. The old advice not to eat mussels in a month without  an “R” still makes sense there. Shop around and it’s possible to find them most of the year round.

From a chef’s point of view the most critical factor is the nature of the water in which they grow. The saltiness especially can vary. The Three Chimneys buys rope-cultured mussels farmed in West coast lochs. To prepare a 3kg bag, empty them into a sink. Remove the beards, then rinse under running water.

This is part of Michael Smith’s basic mise en place. Although it relates closely to the classic moules marinière recipe, it has a different role. – he prepares it for the soup.

Three Chimneys cooked mussels

(Yields about 2.25 litres)
125g butter
125g diced white of leek
125g diced fennel
125g diced celery
125g diced onion
1.5 litres dry white wine
500ml water
1 x 3kg batch mussels

Melt the butter in a large (minimum 10 litre) pan and add the diced vegetables. Sweat them slowly over a low flame, keeping the pan covered. When they have softened, but not coloured, add the wine and water. Turn up the heat. As soon as they start to simmer, add the mussels. Cover the pan. Cook until the shells have opened.

Put a large colander over a bowl or basin. Empty the mussels into the colander. Keep the chilled broth for the risotto. Shell and chill the mussels. Reserve about 48, six per serving, for 
the Pakora 

This is an unenriched three-quarter cooked base that can be adapted depending on whether it is part of a main course or a finished dish on, say, a bistro or brasserie menu.

100ml pomace oil
100g diced vegetables 
(leek, fennel, celery, onion)
2 cloves garlic, grated
300g aged Carnaroli rice
700ml (approximately) hot mussel broth

Heat the oil in a sauté pan or similar and add the diced vegetables. Sweat over a low heat until they’ve softened without colouring. Add the garlic. As soon as its aroma rises from the pan, stir in the rice. Work the rice with a spoon so that every grain is coated with oil. Add enough stock to cover the rice. Boil gently until the rice has absorbed it.

Repeat the dose of mussel broth and boil till absorbed. Add a third covering of stock and cook until the rice is three-quarter cooked — after about 15 minutes.

Empty it onto a cold tray and flatten to prevent any residual cooking. Cover and store.

The spice mix is a matter of taste, but the proportions of pakora batter are critical

Three Chimneys pakora mix

2tsp toasted spice mix 
(ground fennel, mustard and coriander)
2tsp black mustard seed
¼ tsp garam masala
½ tsp pimenton
Pinch of salt
120g gram (chickpea) flour
1tbs plain flour
1 pinch baking powder
Mussel broth

Combine all the dry ingredients. Whisk in enough mussel broth to obtain a light coating batter the texture of single cream (start checking after 150ml of stock).
Chill until needed. Allow approximately two tablespoons of mixture per portion.


● The mussel broth and mussels are part of 
mise en place
● Part-cooked risotto is made ahead of service
● Pakora batter is done in advance
● Hake is filleted and portioned in advance
● Fish is shallow-fried to order
● Rice is finished to order
● Mussel and syboe pakora is fried to order
● Purple sprouting broccoli is chargrilled to order

The three-course set dinner menu “plus all the little extras” at the Three Chimneys is £60, and changes daily. Located at the far tip of Skye, the restaurant is dependent on the weather and the seasons for produce it buys and the costs will fluctuate more than in, say, Edinburgh. Michael Smith budgets his food costs on a monthly basis, rather than dish by dish or menu by menu.

● Don’t reduce or reboil the mussel broth or it becomes too salty
● Mix in the grated garlic after frying the vegetable mirepoix for a fresher taste
● Salt the pan before frying the fish – there’s less of a risk of over- or under-seasoning
● The fresh mussel stock can be used instead of butter or oil to flavour green vegetables

(Serves 1)
20ml sunflower or pomace oil
120g pavé hake
120g ¾ cooked risotto
100ml hot mussel stock
2 sliced spring onions (syboe)
10g sliced red onion
6 shelled mussels
2-3tbs pakora batter
Frying oil
2-3 sprigs purple sprouting broccoli
1tsp shellfish oil

Heat the sunflower oil in a small frying pan and add a sprinkling of salt. Lay the hake in the pan skin-side down and cook until the skin is crisp. Turn over to finish cooking.

Reheat the risotto in a small pan and add the mussel stock. Let the rice boil gently to absorb the liquid and finish cooking.

Coat the spring onions, onion and mussels in the pakora batter. Fry in hot (180°C) oil until golden. Drain on absorbent paper.

Put the purple sprouting broccoli on a contact grill and let it sear for a couple of minutes.

Spoon the cooked risotto on to the plate in a pile. Lay the hake against it. Add the pakora. Finish with sprigs of purple sprouting broccoli and a few drops of shellfish oil.

Variations razor clams, cockles, queen scallops  or winkles can be mixed with the risotto.

Shellfish oil
Roast shellfish bones and carapaces in the oven with mirepoix and tomato purée. Deglaze with brandy. Add a little spice including star anise. Pour over enough pomace oil to cover and stew in a low oven for one hour. Pound the bones with the oil till they are well crushed and strain through a very fine sieve or muslin. Store in a squeezy bottle or jar until service.


Three Chimneys, Michael Smith

For almost 30 years, the Three Chimneys restaurant on the Isle of Skye has been a beacon of Scottish cooking. Eight years ago the owners, Eddie and Shirley Spear, hired a young chef, Michael Smith. His role at first was to support Shirley in the kitchen. Since then, he has become the executive chef and, 18 months ago, a director of the company.

Since the Spears moved away from the day-to-day running of the restaurant, he has taken overall control. By taste and by temperament, he isn’t looking to change the traditional emphasis on Highlands & Islands-sourced produce. He is, though, slowly evolving the cooking. His latest change – a “kitchen table” where up to six guests can dine and roam at will through the kitchen, even during service – reflects his relaxed style.

“You’ll have noticed,” he says, “that I didn’t call it the chef’s table. That has more to do 
with status.”

Although Smith shies from the accolades some chefs pursue, he is happy competing against his peers on BBC2′s Great British Menu.