Rich, creamy and velvety, this luscious Mussel and Leek Soup makes a sexy little starter. In fact, Craig Claiborne wrote "it may well by the most elegant and delicious soup ever created". Suffused with the rich colour and smell of saffron, often called "edible gold," this fabulous soup, was inspired by the great classic Parisian mussel soup called Billi Bi, a potage made with mussels, onions, wine, cream and various aromatic seasonings. A traditional favourite from the Brittany coast, there are several stories surrounding the origin of this suave soup, the most popular being that French chef Louis Barthe, of famed Parisian restaurant Maxim’s, named the soup after American tin tycoon, William B. Leeds - Billy B - who was a favoured customer. Chef Barthe developed this soup to please his patron who loved the flavour of mussel broth but didn’t care for eating the mussels themselves so Barthe strained the mussels out, leaving a smooth, silky soup with an essence of the sea. These days Mussel and Leek Soup is often served with the mussels, but whatever the soups origin, it's become a true classic of French cuisine. Served with thick warm slices of buttered French baguette, it needs nothing more.
Mussel & Leek Soup with Saffron and White Wine
3 lb mussels, cleaned
1/4 cup dry white wine
1 bunch of leeks, about 1 lb, cleaned
6 tbsp unsalted butter
1 small yellow onion, minced
2 tbsp all-purpose flour
2 cups fish stock
1 large pinch of saffron strands
1/4 cup heavy cream
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 bunch of chives or tarragon, chopped for garnish (optional)
Put the mussels and 2 tablespoons of the wine into a large pan. Cover and cook over a high heat, shaking the pan every now and then, until the mussels have opened. Tip them into a colander set over a bowl to collect all of the liquid and let cool slightly. Once their easier to handle, remove the mussels from their shells and select 18-24 perfect looking mussels for garnish and set aside in a small bowl; place the remaining mussels in another bowl — these will later be puréed in the soup.
Cut a 2-inch piece of leek into matchsticks, and mince the rest. Melt the butter in a pan, add the minced leeks and onion, and cook gently for 3 to 4 minutes, until soft but not browned. Stir in the flour and cook for 1 minute. Gradually stir in the mussel liquid, the remaining wine and fish stock, and bring to a boil, stirring frequently. Add the saffron and let simmer for 25 minutes. Select 18 to 24 perfect mussels for garnish and add the rest to the soup.
Meanwhile, drop the leek matchsticks into a pan of boiling salted water. Bring back to a boil, then drain and refresh under running cold water. Blend the soup, in batches if necessary, until smooth. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve placed over a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Add the cream and reheat very gently over very low heat, about 5 minutes, then stir in the mussels and leek matchsticks. Season with salt and pepper. To serve, ladle the soup into warmed bowls. Garnish with the reserved whole mussels, some chopped chives and serve immediately.