By Ana Kinkaid
How does a soup gain such acclaim that the likes of Craig Claiborne declare it to be the most elegant and delicious soup ever created?
If the soup is France’s beloved Billi Bi Soup, also known as Cream of of Mussel Soup, the tale of its unique creation and enduring fame involves American millionaires, Greek princesses, racing boats and, of course, legendary chefs.
The story of Billi Bi Soup began in ancient Brittany where the residents of coastal towns have for centuries harvested big, beautiful mussels from the sea. They added these mussels to a variety of their regional dishes, all hardy and savory, but certainly not haute cuisine.
Centuries passed. By the beginning of the early 1900s, France had gained fame as the culinary capital of the world and America as a leading industrial power. One nation offered elegance and style; the other offered wealth and an interest in all things new.
It was at this time that the American millionaire William B. Leeds, Sr., journeyed to France. He had risen from a humble florist to the man who cornered the lucrative tin plate market. He sold his metal company to U.S. Steel in 1901. On his death in 1908 his wealth was valued at over $900 million in today’s dollars.
Obviously such vast wealth enabled him to travel frequently to Europe and especially to Paris, a city he adored. He was known to dine nightly at Maxim’s with his beautiful second wife, Nonnie May Stewart Worthington, who after his death became by marriage a Greek princess.
This is also the period when the famed chef Louis Barthe of Ciro’s in Deauville, Normandy, came to Maxim’s as chef. He brought with him, of course, his favorite recipes including a recipe for Cream of Mussel Soup.
In Normandy, where mussels were so plentiful they cost nearly nothing, the practice had been to steam the mussels with herbs and use only the resulting broth as the main ingredient to blend later with cream. In other words, a soup that captured the flavor of mussels without the mussel meat actually being in the final dish!
This is the reason that two variations of Billi Bi can often be found in recipe books–one with mussel meats included and one without. In Paris, and later in countless kitchens around the world, chefs added the mussel meat to the dish as it seemed foolish to discard such a flavorful and colorful ingredient.
Chef Barthe’s Cream of Mussel Soup soon became such a favorite of William B. Leeds, Sr., that it was kept permanently on the menu at Maxim’s. Sadly Billy, as his friends called him, died in 1908 of a stroke at the Hotel Ritz in Paris. He left behind his saddened wife and a son, also named William.
William B. Leeds, Jr., was at that time the richest child in the world. Later, at the age of 18, he would also marry aGreek princess and gain worldwide fame as a hunter and yachtsman. Like his father, he would call both Europe and America home–especially Paris and Maxim’s during the early days of the roaring 1920s.
Tradition at Maxim’s relates that the soup was named for William B. Leeds, but whether it was named for the father or for the son may never be known. The name fits them both, for each was known as “Billy” to associates and friends who were forever saying “bye” to this pair of international travelers.
Billy Jr. was in fact such a traveler he flew planes trans-Atlantic and raced speed boats so fast he managed to make even the adventurous Ernest Hemingway regret traveling with him. His unending need for speed and action finally came to an end as the Great Depression and World War II collapsed fortunes and changed both America and Europe forever.
It was Craig Claiborne, the food editor of The New York Times, who rediscovered Billi Bi Soup and published a recipe for it in his first 1961 edition of The New York Times Cookbook. It was an instant success. Over the years he refined the recipe working with his longtime collaborator Pierre Franey.
Today Billi Bi is a classic soup clearly worthy of the holidays–easy to make yet utterly unforgettable once tasted.
Billi Bi Soup
Adapted from the Craig Claiborne’s Classic Billi Bi
2 lbs Taylor Shellfish Mediterranean Mussels, scrubbed
2 shallots, peeled and coarsely chopped
2 small white onions, peeled and quartered
2 sprigs parsley, plus chopped parsley for garnish
Salt and Pepper, to taste
Pinch of cayenne pepper
1 c. dry white wine (such as Sauvignon Blanc)
2 T. unsalted butter, cubed
1 bay leaf
2 sprigs fresh thyme
2 c. heavy rich cream
1 egg yolk, lightly beaten
De-beard the mussels just before cooking
Place mussels in Dutch oven that has a cover.
Add shallots, onions, parsley, salt, pepper, cayenne, wine, butter, bay leaf and thyme.
Cover and bring to a boil over medium heat.
Reduce heat and simmer 8 to 10 minutes, or until mussels have opened.
Discard any that have not opened.
Strain liquid through a colander lined with cheesecloth and reserve; this is the base for the soup.
When cool enough to handle, remove mussels from shells and reserve.
Discard shells and aromatics.
Bring reserved liquid to a low boil in a small saucepan.
Add cream and return mixture almost to a boil.
Remove from heat.
Add egg yolk and stir to combine.
Return saucepan to heat and let thicken slightly. (Do not boil.)
Adjust seasoning to taste.
Arrange mussels in center of large soup dishes and spoon liquid over them.
Sprinkle with chopped fresh parsley.
What do we mean when we talk about sustainable seafood? Ana Kinkaid takes a deep dive on this topic on the We Are Chefs blog.
Ana Kinkaid brings 25 years’ experience in the hospitality industry to her writing. As a world traveler, nothing delights her more than discovering an innovative restaurant or a unique ingredient. Ana is a consultant to leading food companies and also speaks at major culinary conferences, often linking past culinary traditions to current and future trends. Her areas of expertise include culinary history, ethnic foods, terroir, wines and cocktails, as well as sustainable development within the food industry.