In a previous post we spoke about the increasing public face of women chefs and their contribution to the Basque gastronomic scene. But did you know that women played a prominent role in establishing the Basque restaurant world in the first place? In what follows, I gratefully acknowledge the information offered by both Olga Macias Muñoz and food blogger Biscayenne (aka Ana Vega) in the articles cited below. Eskerrik asko!
The Azcaray Sisters
Vicenta, Úrsula, and Sira Azcaray Eguileor were born in 1866, 1870, and 1870 respectively, into a comfortable middle-class family from what is today the Abando neighborhood of Bilbao. Their mother, the redoubtable Felipa Eguileor (1831-1898), was already a successful restaurateur-businesswoman who had married Sebastián Azcaray, vice chairman of the Bank of Bilbao. In 1886 the couple founded what would become a thriving restaurant, El Amparo, in Bilbao, in which Felipa prepared traditional Basque dishes, but on Sebastián’s death, she was left widowed with four children to look after (the youngest, a son Enrique). The girls were thus sent to study cooking in France and prepare for careers in the restaurant business. On their return, they helped their mother at El Amparo and the resulting fusion cuisine–between what they learned from the traditional Basque cooking of their mother and their studies in France–led to the restaurant occupying a distinguished place at the vanguard of Basque gastronomy in turn-of-the-century Bilbao, a golden age for the city that was experiencing a major industrial boom and significant economic growth. The restaurant closed its doors in 1918 on the death of Vicenta Azcaray, although her sisters continued to operate a catering business thereafter. After the death of his last sister, Sira, Enrique gathered together all the notes and recipes written down by the siblings and published them in book form in 1933; a work that remains a classic today in Bilbao and beyond.
Maria Mestayer de Echagüe: The “Marquess of Parabere”
Maria Manuela Eugenia Carolina Mestayer Jaquet was born in 1878 in Bilbao, the daughter of Eugenio Mestayer Demelier (the French consul in the city) and his local wife, María Jacquet la Salle, the daughter of a well-known Bilbao banker also of French origin. Maria enjoyed a privileged upbringing, attending the best schools and traveling across Europe, where here parents also took her to the most famous restaurants of the day (including that of Auguste Escoffier, the renowned French chef and writer who revolutionized and popularized French cuisine in the late 19th and early 20th centuries). In 1901 she married Ramón Echagüe y Churruca, a wealthy lawyer from Donostia-San Sebastián, and the couple settled in Bilbao.
Early on in her marriage, on realizing that her husband was finding excuses not to come home for lunch, she found out that it was on account of the food being prepared by the domestic staff the couple employed. She therefore decided to study gastronomy and prepare her husband’s meals herself. This she did by a voracious diet of reading everything she could about the history and culture of food. What’s more, the self-taught Maritxu, as she was affectionately known at home, found time to do all this while giving birth to eight children in the process!
Passionate about writing, she began publishing articles about food for newspapers and magazines. She also began giving cooking classes and by the 1920s she was a well-known figure in her own right in Bilbao; famously, she is reputed to have been gifted the first refrigerator to arrive in Bilbao around this time. By the end of the decade she began to use the pseudonym the “Marquess of Parabere” and published the first of her many books on gastronomy, including a work on Basque cuisine in 1935. The following year she embarked on yet another groundbreaking venture, opening her own restaurant (financed with her own money), the Parabere, in Madrid, where she settled while her husband remained in Bilbao.
An initial success, the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War that same year resulted in the Parabere being requisitioned for use by the anarchist CNT labor union, with Maritxu still at the helm. There followed a somewhat crazy period of Casablanca-like intrigues in the restaurant, which was frequented by spies and agents as well as well-known figures like Ernest Hemingway in his capacity as war correspondent during the conflict. It was while in Madrid, too, that she received news of the death of her husband Ramón during the war. With the triumph of Franco, the restaurant closed and her children moved to Madrid. There she eventually died in 1949.
Nicolasa Pradera Mendibe was born in Markina-Xemein, Bizkaia, in 1870. as a young woman she entered into domestic service for the well-to-do Gaitán de Ayala family. When one of the family’s daughters married and settled in Donostia-San Sebastián, Nicolasa moved there with the woman in question to take charge of kitchen duties. There she met and married Narciso Dolhagaray, a well-known butcher in the city. In 1912 the couple opened a restaurant, the Casa Nicolasa, which also introduced a French touch into traditional Basque cuisine and quickly attracted the attention of the city’s high society. In 1932 she sold the Casa Nicolasa to Maria Urrestarazuri and opened another establishment together with her children, Andia, in the city. And in 1933 a book of her recipes was published that still sells today. Following the civil war she moved to Madrid where she opened another restaurant, Nicolasa. She died in Madrid in 1959.
Note: Casa Nicolasa, founded by Nicolasa Pradera in 1912, continued to be one of the main reference points of the Donostia-San Sebastián restaurant scene through much of the 20th century. In 1996 the renowned Basque chef José Juan Castillo took over the restaurant, which he ran until his retirement in 2010. The site, an emblematic feature of the city center, was subsequently converted into the Casa Nicolasa guesthouse.
All these women were connected not just in the innovative techniques they introduced and the prominent roles they occupied in championing and developing Basque cuisine–one could even say in laying the foundations for the international reputation of Basque cooking–but also in their didactic or instructive influence on the gastronomy of the country. The recipes of the Azcaray sisters were first published posthumously in 1930 as El Amparo, sus 685 platos clásicos (El Amparo, its 685 favorite recipes). Likewise, Maria Mestayer was a prolific author who published many works, among them La Enciclopedia Culinaria: la cocina completa (The culinary encyclopedia: Complete cooking) in 1933 and Platos escogidos de la cocina vasca, Entremeses, aperitivos y ensaladas (Selected dishes of Basque cuisine, appetizers, snacks, and salads) in 1934. Finally, as noted, Nicolasa Pradera’s La cocina de Nicolasa (Nicolasa’s kitchen), first published in 1933, is still a well-loved book today.
A Long List
These are just some of the important women in the history of Basque gastronomy, but they are by no means the only ones, so I list here a few more names by way of at least recognizing their contribution as well (all the establishments named here were in Bilbao): (María) Dolores Vedia de Uhagón (b. 1809) from Bilbao, author of Libro de Cocina a propósito para La Mesa Vizcaína (1892); Brígida de Murua Izaguirre, owner of and head chef at the Hotel Boulevard; Elvira Arias de Apraiz (1856-1922) from Vitoria-Gasteiz, author of Libro de cocina (1912); Pura Iturralde Gorostiaga (1898-1984), who owned and ran the famed Shanti El Marinero restaurant; Antonia Idígoras, owner of the Hotel Antonia (the first Bilbao hotel to be included in the Michelin Guide, in 1927); Josefa Aloa Ugarte, chef at the hotel-restaurant Ocerinjaúregui inn; Clarita de Armendáriz, joint owner and chef at the Armendáriz; Tomasa de Asúa, chef at the Chacolí de Zoilo restaurant; and the sisters Luisa and Escolástica Goikoetxea who ran the Las Navarras inn.
By way of conclusion, I’ll cite part of the prologue to the first edition of La cocina de Nicolasa, written by Gregorio Marañón–one of the towering figures of Spanish intellectual life in the 20th century–who wrote of Basque women’s influence on their national cuisine:
attentive and intelligent cooking dates back, without any doubt, hundreds of years in these provinces; because one does not improvise in just a few generations the profound disposition, almost specific to these people, toward the gastronomic art that Bizkaian, Gipuzkoan, and Navarrese women have, women made of ancient noble attributes, among whom I place this admirable culinary aptitude.
Biscayenne, “Bilbainas&Cocineras: las hermanas Azcaray y El Amparo.”
Olga Macías Muñoz, “Cocineras vascas: tradición e innovación en las postrimerías del siglo XIX y comienzos del siglo XX,” in Euskonews no. 525, March 19-26, 2010.
The Marquise of Parabere website, dedicated to the history of this fascinating woman and including photos, articles, and recipes.