The Chef in Charlotte – Soup Billi-Bi
Updated: Jan 16, 2022
I excitedly watched the weekend weather forecast for the Charlotte metro area develop over the past week––a massive winter storm was set to bring the first snowfall of the year to town, and in possibly record-breaking quantities of nearly a foot (!). Sadly, it since changed to a forecast of a few inches of snow and a half inch of ice––a far more problematic but much less picturesque forecast. Still, knowing the state of North Carolina would be essentially shut down for about 36 hours, I dove deep into my cold weather recipe repertoire for some warm, comforting gustatory delights.
Soup Billi-Bi is a talisman of my early culinary exploratory phase. Back when I first was undergoing my "culinary revolution," I made a trip out to San Francisco and wine country with the goal of exploring as much wonderful food as possible. One of the stops on this trip was Cyrus, a now-shuttered two Michelin star fine dining spot in the heart of downtown Healdsburg. I remember precious little about this meal (hence the reason I made this blog in the first place!) but remember distinctly a magnificent cream of mussel soup called "Billi-Bi," which may have been the best thing I ate on the entire trip. I've made it a handful of times since then, and let me tell you, folks––this is one of the most luxurious, magnificent things that's ever been concocted, and a seemed perfect choice for the forthcoming icepocalypse.
The legend of the soup is actually pretty fun, too. At the dawn of the 20th century, chef Louis Barthe moved from Normandy to Paris to take up the head chef position at the fabulously famous Maxim's. From the Normandy coast, Chef Barthe brought his love of local mussels, so abundant at that time that they cost next to nothing. His cream of mussel soup became such a favorite of retired American metal baron William B. Leeds, a new transplant to Paris and near-nightly regular at Maxim's, that they kept it on the menu permanently, eventually naming it affectionately for the millionaire––William Brandt, or "Billy B.," somehow evolving into "Billi-Bi" (the French, amirite?). Craig Claiborne, the inimitable food critic and editor for The New York Times, rediscovered and revived it in the Times in the 60s, calling it "the most elegant and delicious soup ever created."
I can't say I disagree. This thing is so magnificent and decadent that I don't dare make it more than once every couple of years so that I never blunt its impact. And given that the world would be ending for a day or two, why not fatten myself up with a few bowls of this glorious indulgence? Moreover, why, indeed, should both of my regular readers not have the opportunity to try it as well?
For those of you squeamish about mussels, or who have had bad experiences with the bivalves in the past, take the Maestro's word that mussels get a woefully unfair bad rap. The reason is it is incredibly easy to find absolutely terrible mussels at most of America's supermarkets (and even restaurants). Many supermarkets have them, but they're rarely in demand in most US regions, and most employees of these places have zero idea how to handle them, so they tend to be mistreated and/or languish in the case. Moreover, as with most seafood (*cough*... food in general) sold in supermarkets, the sourcing can be highly suspect. Mussels are finnicky and, yes, can be quite gross if they are of low quality or haven't been handled well. Even in a crop of perfectly sourced, ideally handled mussels I can find a stinker or two. It kinda comes with the territory of a creature that spends much of its life filtering through the gross things in the sea. But that shouldn't stop you, because when a mussel is good, it's SO good. The one or two gross ones are worth it.
Find the best mussels in town, or even have them flown in from a good online seafood company––in my case, I managed to grab a pound of big, beautiful Prince Edward Island mussels from Canada's northeast coast at the best (and most ridiculously expensive) seafood market in Charlotte. Make sure your fish monger inspects each mussel. If you get them in a pre-packaged mesh bag or someone just throws them into a sack without checking them, you're almost certainly getting several dead mussels at the store. I had an experience where I got a whole bag of mussels at a supermarket only to discover at home that 90 percent of them were dead.
Still not convinced? The original version of this recipe just uses the glorious stock from the mussels, so while I strongly do not recommend it, you can always toss the meat, or better, use it for another purpose (even feeding a pet lol).
Here're a couple of recipes for you to peruse. I tend toward the simplicity of the Times recipe, and don't care to add too much extra like carrots and celery so the stock shines on its own. Garlic, onions, shallots, and leeks form the allium base for the stock, in whatever volumes you like given your flavor preference. I go shallot heavy with some leeks and Vidalia onions for delicacy, and a little more garlic than any recipe calls for––be liberal with the alliums! More flavor isn't a bad thing. How coarsely you chop your alliums and how long you cook them depend on if you decide to keep the "aromatic" veg in the finished product. The original recipe says to discard while others say keep them and add them to the soup at the end––I prefer the soup silky-smooth, so I choose not to add the alliums, but also don't discard them! You could use them for another sautéed veggie dish, in a purée, or whatever, but remember that any other use is preferable to wasting them!
Next consideration is prepping the mussels. If you're unfamiliar with cooking mussels, here are a few basics. First, when mussels are sold, they should be still alive! Because they are subject to outside pressures when being jostled about at the market, their shells should be shut tightly for protection. Sometimes, though, a mussel gets comfortable and lets it all hang out––if the shell is open, give it a solid tap on one of the shells on your counter. The shock should cause the mussel to close (or mostly close) within ten to fifteen seconds. If the mussel does not close, it's dead, and when mussels die, they become very toxic very quickly. Dispose of any mussels that won't close with a good tap, or any with broken shells. Most commercial mussels should be free of grit because they are grown on ropes, but for good measure give them a little scrub to remove any grit from the shells, and pull out the stringy "beards" from the side of the shells if your mussels have them––most commercial mussels will have these removed already.
Finally, assemble your seasonings and butter, cream, and separated egg yolks. I recommend tying parsley, thyme, and a bay leaf or two in a bouquet garni so they all stay together. A bit of cayenne pepper is also classic in this dish, but you can also use a smokier pepper like guajillo for some quirk. I used creole seasoning from Omar Tate's residency at Blue Hill Stone Barns, which emphasizes pepper and thyme. You'll also need some dry white wine for the stock. What kind of white wine? How about the one you're drinking!
Melt some butter in a stock pot or big saucepan over a medium flame and add the alliums, veg if you're using, and bouquet garni. I like to cook the alliums a bit before adding the mussels to the pot so they are nice and fragrant and release some of their moisture into the stock, and if you're using veg like carrots and celery, you'll certainly want to cook until they're tender. Sprinkle in some salt, pepper, and cayenne, gently add the mussels and white wine, and cover the pot. Don't stir––the mussels do best gently steaming on top of the onions. The mussels don't need long to cook and spill their glorious mussely essence into the stock, and can overcook easily, so keep an eye on them––as soon as the shells open, they are done. Discard any that don't open, and take out the mussels one by one from the pan, making sure to let all the juices flow into the stock.
Strain the aromatics through a fine mesh strainer (preferably lined with cheesecloth) to isolate the silky broth. Do what you desire with the mussels––I certainly don't recommend it, but the rumor is that Billy B. didn't care for the mussel meat itself and hence they always threw them out at Maxim's, so the original recipe calls for discarding the meat. Back when mussels were abundant on the Brittany coast, this was less of a problem, but with the epidemic of food waste in the world, and given how good they can be, I say eat the mussels with the soup! I had plenty left over from the stock to snack on as the soup finished, and I imagine you will as well.
As mentioned above, discard, add, or store the alliums, toss the bouquet garni, and then return to the stock. Heat over a medium-low flame and add the heavy cream and egg yolk, stirring or whisking constantly so as not to add scrambled egg yolk to your soup. Let the soup thicken and season to taste if you need.
To serve, ladle the soup into a bowl and re-add the mussels (and veg, if you like). I like to keep the mussels in the shell for aesthetic purposes, but removing them certainly makes consumption easier. Snip some chives over the top along with some parsley leaves to garnish, and a dash of cayenne. Slice some crusty bread for dipping. Finally, pour a glass of the wine you used in the stock, and prepare to be transported to food nirvana.
It's truly amazing to me that something this delicious exists in the world. Despite democratic norms crumbling, the climate cratering around us, and the pandemic on a seemingly endless rampage, for a few moments, let yourself just live in the consumption of this glorious soup, and magically, if temporarily, all will seem right with the world.
How about some wine?
I made a slight boo boo when selecting wine this time around, being a little frazzled by all the traffic during the pre-icepocalypse grocery store rush. A few winemakers are aging sauvignon blanc in tequila barrels, imparting a round, distinctly agave essence to the otherwise clean wine. These wines are rather controversial, but I think they are fantastic. I picked up this Beringer tequila barrel-aged sauv blanc without seeing it was barrel aged, and was concerned the soup might taste like creamy Patrón as a result. My fears were unfounded, and it turned into a happy accident because while the tequila barrel aging didn't change much about the character of the soup, it did add a little oaky "jeuge."
If it's cold out and you're not yet over-served, I recommend some warm, comforting glühwein for dessert. Maybe next season the Maestro will post his glühwein guidelines, but until then, here's a serviceable recipe!
Food Waste-Free Bonus points!
If you have extra herbs left over, don't waste them! I happened to have no plans for the dividend of thyme or chives, and had a couple tiny bottles of Greek olive oil I bought duty-free at the Athens airport. Following the advice of a recent Gordon Ramsay "kitchen tips" video I saw advising to put fresh herbs in a bottle of olive oil to marinate, I decided to use one bottle to create thyme olive oil and another to create leek and chive olive oil. In a couple weeks, they will be magnificent! Don't waste––find a way to use what you otherwise have left over!
Cheers to all, and stay warm!