Billy Bi Soup in the country

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 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 a Greek 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.

Craig Claiborne, who brought this amazing cream of mussels soup to The Times in the 1960s and refined it over the years with his longtime kitchen collaborator Pierre Franey, once called it “the most elegant and delicious soup ever created.” It is also one of the easiest to make. Use wine to steam open some mussels beneath a blanket of aromatics and use the resulting stock as a base for cream. Add the mussels and perhaps a grind of pepper. “One of the sublime creations on Earth,” Claiborne wrote.

Calling the world’s most elegant soup ever created “easy to make” is a self-effacing conjunction which I as a gastronomic novice unhesitatingly dismiss out-of-hand. Nonetheless it is a bashfulness I am accustomed to hear from expert chefs including, as I have today discovered, those who like the eponym of Billy Bi Soup are also world travelers.  It is fitting therefore that we should today have lunched upon Billy Bi soup with two accomplished knife sharpeners and locally renowned vagabonds; namely, my erstwhie physician and his companion who as I write are poised to depart shortly to Antartica via Mexico City and Buenos Aires, Argentina beyond the legendary and inconceivably remote Tierra del Fuego.

Antarctica is Earth’s southernmost and least-populated continent. Situated almost entirely south of the Antarctic Circle and surrounded by the Southern Ocean (also known as the Antarctic Ocean), it contains the geographic South Pole. Antarctica is the fifth-largest continent, being about 40% larger than Europe, and has an area of 14,200,000 km2 (5,500,000 sq mi). Most of Antarctica is covered by the Antarctic ice sheet, with an average thickness of 1.9 km (1.2 mi).

Following our arrival upon our host’s country estate we immediately engaged in a lengthy catching-up discussion overlooking the outdoor patio, the deserted pool and the snowy back meadow. From thence we were called to port. We settled comfortably at the large wooden dining table in the open kitchen adjacent the wood burning stove from which emanated a pure dry heat. We were a select and languid congregation of four apart from the black Labrador Finn who quietly lay nearby.

A luncheon, in spite of its lack of reserve, is a social arrangement not to be taken heedlessly. It requires an entirely unique and cultured mechanism. While for example a glass of sherry may suffice as a preamble, the devotion is primarily gossip and qualified nutrition. Simplicity and balance are the key.  To over-extend a midday confab of any materiality is a distortion to be avoided in all respects on both sides of the equation (both hosts and guests). This does not entail confining table talk unsparingly to one’s health and the weather; but it propels the assertion of easily digestible topics such as film, literature and naturally travel. Punctuating the ramblings with local history (and perhaps a tad of eye-brow raising) is always judicious. Oddly I don’t recall having once today endorsed anything approaching the Christmas season other than to observe that our hosts would be at the southern most point of the planet for both Christmas and the New Year; but otherwise the ritual absoption was a passing acquaintance only.