When they gave their 2001 cookbook Simple French Cooking the subtitle Recipes from Our Mothers’ Kitchens, authors Georges Blanc and Coco Jobard were not being literal. Rather, they were referring to the female chefs running professional kitchens in Lyons and other parts of France at the turn of the 19th century.
The authors explain: “The talented women chefs who were practising in Lyons at the end of the nineteenth century were affectionately known as mères, mothers. Their reputations rested on their mastery of cuisine bourgeoise, home cooking raised to a higher level by the application of passion and perfectionism. Curnonsky [the nom de plume of Maurice Edmond Sailland], ‘prince of the gourmets,’ declared that, ‘without resorting to artifice, this cuisine attains that peak of artistry: simplicity.’ An avid proponent of female chefs, he had always been a devotee of the women whom he called the ‘priestesses of the table.’ The cooking of the mères came from their own hearts and made their customers’ hearts leap for joy. Certainly, they did not cook to impress. Their generally dour demeanor did not allow for frills. The joy that they lavished on their food, the comforting, motherly warmth of their simple and honest cuisine made them queens – queens of hearts.”
Many of the names will be recognisable to anyone who loves classic French cuisine: La Mère Filloux, who said: “Learning how to make a perfect dish requires years of experience. I have never made more than about four or five dishes throughout my life. I know how to cook them, and I will never make any others.”; La Mère Brazier, who once worked for La Mère Filloux and went on to become the first female chef to simultaneously have six Michelin stars – three each for two restaurants; La Mère Poulard, of Mont Saint Michel, Brittany, who was famous for omelettes, which were (and still are) cooked in copious amounts of butter; and La Mère Blanc, who was called “the best female cook in the world” by Curnonsky and was the grandmother of chef and author Georges Blanc.
What the authors call “simple French cooking” might not be simple for the average cook (although can you imagine how much more difficult it must have been for les mères back in their days, without modern equipment?). The recipes include potted rabbit; pissaladière; chicken and duck liver mousse with truffles; onion soup gratinée; samphire salad with marinated sea bass and salmon; duck with olives; pike quenelles with financiere sauce; snails in herb butter; volaille demi-deuil (chicken in half mourning – the bird has sliced black truffles under the skin); guinea fowl with green peppercorn sauce; grand mique (a type of dumpling) with veal kidneys and morels; and floating islands with pink praline.