Eugenie Brazièr – star of her time: When you think of Michelin star chefs, a few names probably come to mind but how many of you think of Eugenie Brazièr? An extraordinary women with a singular talent, hers is not only quite a story, but an exceptional culinary legacy of which you’ll still find significant traces both in the city of Lyon and throughout France today.
The Mères Lyonnaises
If you’re in Lyon then it won’t be long until you hear about the Mères Lyonnaises, a particular trend of female chefs in the 19th and early 20th century. Originally born from the kitchens of the silk weavers and merchants, this unique blend of strong, talented female cooks went on to open the many Mères Lyonnaises restaurants which remain the inspiration behind much of Lyon’s modern cuisine. Simple, local and seasonal ingredients paired with the likes of offal, tripe and pork were the order of the day cooked in a manner which you’ll hear frequently described as sublime. It was sophisticated in its simplicity, sustaining and rooted.
Born to very humble beginnings in 1895, Eugenie Brazièr’s was born in Bourg-en-Bresse in Burgundy, and her childhood was mainly spent working on the family farm. She only went to school in winter when there were less farm chores to do and left aged 10 when her mother died and she was sent to learn cooking and cleaning at a larger farm. By the age of 19 she had an illegitimate son and had arrived in Lyon to work in service for a wealthy family. When the cook of the household was taken ill, she stepped in and so began an exceptional culinary career.
Clearly no stranger to hardship, it’s still hard to imagine the sort of prejudice she must have endured back then but before long her skill was noticed and she was apprenticed to one of the very famous chefs of the day, Mère Filloux. Living in a male dominated world, these female chefs had to be exceptionally strong minded so it’s perhaps no surprise that these two personalities clashed and Eugenie left. But by 1921, aged just 26, she had opened her first restaurant La Mère Brazier in Rue Royale and was an instant success.
Her fans and customers included none other than the likes of Charles de Gaulle, Valèry Giscard d’Etaing and Marleene Dietrich and by 1933 Eugenie became the first female chef to be awarded 3 Michelin stars. Highly regarded and passionate in her anti-big restaurant approach, she went on to become the first chef ever to be awarded 6 stars, 3 for each of her 2 restaurants (she opened a second in the foothills of the Alps) which remains a rare and amazing achievement even today.
And when a young man cycled up to her restaurant in the early hours one morning in 1946, it was the beginning of an apprenticeship of a man who’s now regarded as the godfather of cuisine in Lyon. Paul Bocuse has just celebrated 50 years of being a Michelin star chef and his inspiration and therefore Eugenie’s too, infuses many of the kitchens of Lyon.
La Mère Brazier
Eugene Brazier’s recipes can be found in a book called “La Mère Brazier: The mother of Modern French Cooking”, it is semi biographical and tells some of her story as well as sharing 300 of her recipes. She’s been described as a tough, modest and simple woman who had a ferocious temper and demanded the highest possible standards. Despite growing up in poverty, she lived in a region which yields up an astonishingly diverse bounty such as pike, carp crayfish, pheasant, boar, partridge and eel. And partnering these with sublime simplicity to the creams, cheeses and butters of her youth, and the deep rich vegetation, fatted goose pâtés and fragrant wines of the surrounding country, she created some of her most famous dishes. The silkiness of her Langouste Belle Aurore (lobster drenched in brandy and cream), the rich earthy flavours of her poularde en demi deuil (chicken in half mourning, a plump chicken with truffles stuffed under the skin) and the soft textures of her fond d’artichauts au foie gras, marked an era. She died in 1977.
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How to get there: By train from London to Lyon in just 4.5 hours
Tourist office website: www.en.lyon-france.com