Like so many people associated with the restaurant world, William Sitwell’s life changed beyond recognition when the pandemic hit last spring. One of the UK’s eminent food critics, he was left wondering what the future of the restaurant world would be, as well as looking back on how eating out has evolved over the decades and centuries that precede us.
Who are the famous Mères Lyonnaises?
They are cited as culinary references in numerous texts of the twentieth century and flaunted as a key element of Lyon’s tourism. They are a cornerstone of France’s regional gastronomic heritage. Yet who are these famous Lyon Mothers (Mères Lyonnaises)? Writing a text for the Dictionary of Creative Women led me to question the history of these women and their naming…
Lyon Mothers (Mères Lyonnaises) – This generic term designates a number of cooks of modest origin, who set up on their own after having served the great families of Lyon. They offer a cuisine that is both popular and bourgeois, simple and refined, based on a set of specialties that have become inseparable from the city’s gastronomic reputation.
The first mentions of the mothers date back to the 18th century, with the restaurant of Mère Brigousse, in the Charpennes district, and that of Mère Guy, established in La Mulatière in 1759, before being taken over and developed by her two granddaughters, around 1870. The Mères Lyonnaises phenomenon gained momentum in the 19th century with the development of gastronomic societies.
However, the mothers heyday was in the 20th century, especially during the interwar period, which saw the establishment of this type of restaurant. On the one hand, because of the economic conditions, which meant many middle-class families had to separate from their cooks; who in turn, had no other option than to set up on their own. On the other hand, thanks to the development of automobile-led tourism and the gastronomic guides associated with it. The promotion of regional cuisine began. One of the frontrunners was the cuisine of Lyon, for which the mothers quickly became the emblem.
It was during this period that the mothers’ restaurants underwent a real transformation, from the point of view of both the clientele and of the dishes offered. Up to this point, these establishments were mostly frequented by common and working-class clientele. They became increasingly reputable and slowly grew to become an important element of Lyon’s culinary culture. They were frequented by bosses and industrialists seeking high quality, homely-type meals at a reasonable price. Alongside the staples such as quenelles and macaroni gratins, the dishes started to become gentrified. If the first mothers were known for highly popular dishes, such as eel matelote (specialty of Mère Guy) or Venus’ Breasts (the famous quenelles of Mère Brigousse). While Mère Filloux (born Françoise Fayolle, 1865-1925) founded the reputation of her establishment at 73 rue Duquesne, on (volaille en demi-deuil) steamed poultry, served with a supreme sauce, artichoke and foie gras.
The phenomenon accelerated with the recognition of food critics. Settled in Vonnas, White Mother (1883-1949) whose real name was Élisa Blanc’s earned a first Michelin star in 1929 for her chicken with morels and veal chop with sorrel, and a second in 1933. France’s Touring Club awarded her the first prize in its culinary competition (1930), and Curnonsky declared her “best cook in the world”.
Critics also praised Marie Bourgeois, installed sixty kilometers from Lyon (Priay), crowned in 1923 by the Club des Cent before obtaining three Michelin stars in 1933, becoming one of the first women to obtain this distinction. Along with Eugénie Brazier (1895-1977), who was similarly recognised for her restaurant in the rue Royale and for that in the Col de la Luère.
The twentieth century counted around thirty Lyon Mothers whose reputation extended far beyond the city’s borders. Among them, we should mention Mère Jean for her establishment that opened in 1923, at rue des Marronniers, frequented by the journalists of the regional newspaper Le Progrès; Mère Léa whose restaurant, Place Antonin Gourju, was awarded a star for her famous champagne sauerkraut, her tablier de sapeur– a Lyonnais speciality dish made from beef tripe as well as for her macaroni gratin, or Mère Vittet, who was to be found near the Perrache station, Mère Pompon, the great Marcelle, Mère Charles, Mère Castaing, etc. The common thread of their reputations was a strong character, an almost unchanging menu and, of course, their specialties.
After the Second World War, and especially from the 1970s and Nouvelle Cuisine, this phenomenon of exclusively female cooks gradually gave way to a new generations of chefs, some of whom were their apprentices (like of Paul Bocuse, who trained with the Mère Brazier) or their descendants (like George Blanc, grandson of Mère Blanc, who has obtained the third star which he lacked in 1981). As for the Mères’ establishments, when they did not close, they were all taken over by men. One of the last major representatives of this type of cuisine, Paulette Castaing, settled in Condrieu from 1950 to 1988 and awarded two stars in 1964, has just celebrated her centenary.
Prepaired by Caroline Champion
Extract from the Dictionary of Creative Women, Le Dictionnaire universel des créatrices dir. M.Calle-Gruber, B. Didier and A. Fouque, Éditions des Femmes, published in 2012.