Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Whisk Wednesdays—Billy Bi (Mussel Soup)

::Whisk Wednesdays::
Welcome to Whisk Wednesdays!
I now have even more buddies who will join me as I cook my way through a cooking school curriculum. Find out more HERE. You should join us!

Billy Bi (Mussel Soup)We’ve left the tricky emulsion sauces behind and moved onto the first in a series of soups. The first soup on the list is Billy Bi (pronounced BILL-ee BEE and sometimes spelled bilibi or billi-b), which is a cream of mussel soup said to be one of the most elegant and delicious soups ever created (according to RecipeZaar).

Traditionally, the mussels are strained out, leaving a creamy smooth and silky soup. Now it is more often served with the mussels. I even went and bought more mussels the next day to finish off the leftover soup! There’s nothing like Le-Cordon-Bleu-style leftovers!

This mussel soup was created by chef Louis Barthe at Maxim’s in Paris, named after a regular customer William “Billy” Brand (not William Bateman Leeds, a late 19th century tin tycoon, who is often said to be the namesake), and is a signature dish at this famous restaurant. In the 1930s, Maxim’s was one of the first restaurants in the world to win three Michelin stars (the highest number possible). It was highly controversial at the time to serve mussels in such a fine establishment since they’re normally considered trash seafood.

In an online search for the Maxim’s menu to see if this soup is still listed, I found that a 1979 version was sold on eBay in May 2008 for $20 (Cdn). Maybe our fellow Whisk Wednesdays blogger Sara from The Wine Maker’s Wife who is in Paris right now will be able to find out if this soup is still on the menu.

I was able to find fresh, live mussels at our local specialty grocery store. They had been flown in from Prince Edward Island, and the fish monger asked me if I was going to have them for dinner that night as he carefully selected the mussels and placed them on top of a bed of ice in a bag. Then, he punctured some holes in the bag for them to breathe and reminded me to open the outer bag when I got home so that they would remain alive until I was ready to steam them.

I’ve generally had good luck with mussels, but once got a bag of mussels that tasted very fishy. It was awhile before I would cook with mussels again. Thankfully, this bag turned out to be fresh-tasting and juicy.

Mussels are so easy to prepare. Although some instructions tell you to remove the bunch of brown fibers found between the two shells of the mussel (called the byssus threads) by cutting them with scissors or pulling them out with a quick tug, the ones I buy seem to have this done for them already. (This is an indication that they’re farm raised and not wild.) A quick rinse under water to remove any residual sand, and a check to make sure their shells are closed tightly, then they’re good to go. If the shells are already open, then they’re dead and these ones should be thrown out. (When the mussel is unable to hold the two halves of its shell tightly shut together, it’s dead.) Throw out any that have chipped or broken shells as well. Also, if after cooking, they don’t open up, don’t eat them. Mussels spoil quickly after dying and could cause food poisoning. Here is a great link that explains how to prepare mussels.

Also, in my reading about mussels, I stumbled across this rather funny quote from Anthony Bourdain, world renowned chef and tell-it-like-it-is kind of guy:

"mussels in restaurants…are allowed to
wallow in their own foul-smelling piss."
~ Anthony Bourdain in Kitchen Confidential ~

And then there were the dishes
When I first looked at this recipe, it seemed easy. However, when I went to make it I was surprised how long it took to finish and how many dishes and pots I ended up using!

Pot #1: In the first pot, you start preparing the first flavor base by cooking the shallots. Then, after adding the wine and water and a bit of aromatics in the form of celery, and bringing this mixture to a boil, you steam the mussels.

Pot #2: Into a second pot, you strain the liquid to avoid any sandy elements to the soup. Then, you have to remove the shells from the mussels, keeping the meat in a separate bowl. Taking half the mussels, you squeeze as much juice out of them as you can and add this to the cooking liquid, saving the other half to serve in the soup. {I would save the squeezed and disintegrated mussels next time and just chop them fine and serve them with the soup too instead of having just 5 mussels in each soup bowl!}

Pot #3: In the third pot, you make a roux and add the cooking liquid, which characterizes it as a velouté. Simmer this mixture for 20 minutes. After that, you add the cream and bring it to the boil. Finally, you add the saved mussels and warm them in the soup before serving.

Although your sink is overflowing at this point, each step is not difficult and you are rewarded with an amazing soup.


Serves 6

Mise en place for Mussel SoupYou can find the recipe for Billy Bi (Mussel Soup) in the book Le Cordon Bleu at Home. To see how the rest of the Whisk Wednesdays group fared with this week's recipe, click here (or check out the sidebar) and then click on each blogger!

This soup can be served hot or cold.

If you don't like mussels, I would suggest anything fresh as a substitute, such as lobster, langoustines, oysters, or clams. Although the recipe doesn't list salt in the ingredients, it definitely needed it.

Billy Bi (Mussel Soup)Tasting Notes
This was an amazing soup that was creamy and delicious. I’ve always enjoyed mussels, and the simplicity of this soup was perfect, even though it wasn’t so simple to make. Each pot had its purpose in developing the flavor. The first with the wine and aromatics, the second with the mussels and their juices, and the third with the roux, cooking liquid, and the cream. Each added a complexity and layer to the soup to make it more delicious with each step. I found out in one of the blogs I read regularly, Chez Christine, that “restaurant cooks try their best to push a pan's limits: to get things darker, browner, more flavorful.” I think this soup does this with each dirty pot that piles up in the sink. It’s definitely worth the dishes.

Next Week (July 16)
• Julienne Darblay (Creamed Leek and Potato Soup with Julienned Vegetables) page 133-134 (I will be camping, but I hope to find time to make it and post about it before I go.)

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Running total: $465.58 + $9.68 = $475.26

Butter used so far: 6 pounds, 8 tablespoons

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::Whisk Wednesdays::
If you would like to check out the other Whisk Wednesdays bloggers to see their take on Mussel Soup, click Kayte, Shelley, Becke, Sara, Glennis, Jessica, and Mary. Why don't you join us? We'd love to have you.


Anonymous said...

Nice write-up and lovely photo! I really loved this soup!

Anonymous said...

What a lovely did a great job posting about it...I laughed about the number of pans, but I agree, each served a purpose and it created a really good soup.

I like your photo and saving one of the mussels in the shell for serving...looks really nice, and your guests would know exactly what was in there! (So Becke could quickly formulate her excuse for passing on the soup...LOL, right Becke?)

I agree about the salt...needed it here, too...a little.

I was wondering, too, if you could chop up the little squeezed mussel bodies and put them in the soup...I did try one to taste it and see if maybe I could and it felt rubbery without the juice, so I figured that I wouldn't do that as I didn't want to jeopardize the soup. If you do that next time, let me know how it worked...I really did not want to throw them all out...well, Pippin and Vash ended up eating them as dogs will pretty much eat it, rubbery or not.
I figured the French had a reason for tossing them, so I did it, too. But, I do wonder what the reason is...with the French it could be just a visual thing.

Great post, as always, great photos, as always. Great fun!

Have a good time camping...I am certain yours is the only 5 Star camping menu in existence!

Big Boys Oven said...

oh this is a very delicious soup! I am mussel(not muscle, but inside me, may do) fan! So lovely and I love the word you use silky! awesome!

Rasa Malaysia said...


Jessica Eiden Smedley said...

This dish rocked my dinner guests! Well done, all.

Kana said...

I know how quickly pots and pans accumulate in the sink. I am still wishing for a dishwasher.

The way you have served it is very elegant.

Chibog in Chief said...

oh my goodness this is soup looks fantastic!! i'll probably be joinining you guys whisking sounds really fun !!

Anonymous said...

Less than $10 to make a seafood soup - that's a pretty good deal me thinks. After all, I've paid $10 for a bowl of soup at a nice restaurant.

Candyce P. said...

What a lovely blog and post! The soup looks comforting and delicious! Will be sure to give it a try! :)

Mary Ann said...

Very nice. I love how much I learn just by looking at your blog. I gave you a blog award, so check out my blog and then pass it on!

Andrew said...

Hello. I was curous about your observation that Billi Bi is not named for William Leeds. I had always thought it was although I have seen some contention about whether it is named for the father or the son. I noticed today's New York Times has an opaque reference to Leeds as the namesake (see Could you share the background of your observation on the origin? Thanks.

Shari said...

Hi Andrew

Thank you for asking a question and letting me do some follow-up "fact" checking. I can't access the link you provided, but I got this observation from the cookbook we're using (Le Cordon Bleu at Home). It says: ""This dish is a relatively recent addition to the list of French classic recipes. It is thought to have been created in the 1950s by Louis Barthe, who was then chef at Maxim's in Paris. The soup must have shocked some of the restaurant's wealthy clientele since mussels, being plentiful and cheap, were rarely served on fashionable tables. One client, William Brand (known as "Billy"), heartily congratulated the chef and sang the praises of his creation; in return the dish was christened in his honor ("Billy B.")."

Now, I've done a bit of online searching and have found the following references to William B. Leeds, who is the most popular namesake:

And here are references to William B. Beebe, another possible namesake:

So, given the number of references to William B. Leeds, that might be the most reliable. Whether it was Leeds Jr or Sr, though, I don't know. William Brand is only cited in the LCB@Home cookbook. Let me know if you find out definitively who "Billy-bi" is!


Anonymous said...

How many does the recipe serve? Thinking of serving it as the main course.

Thank you in advance!

Shari said...

This recipe serves 6. I've updated the post now. Hope you make it!

Anna said...

Fantastic Soup! Thank you for the wonderful recipe and directions