It all began well before the French Revolution, in the heart of the Bresse region, where the Blanc family had been cultivating the land for several generations, in Marboz, Cuet near Montrevel, and later Saint-Didier-d’Aussiat.
It was Jean-Louis Blanc and his wife who, in 1872, were the first innkeepers to set up in business in Vonnas, close to the Champ de Foire.
Their main customers at the time were the poultry sellers who arrived at the market in carts or on horseback on Thursdays and had a warming bowl of soup and later, once they had finished their shopping, sat down to enjoy a hearty snack.
The soup was good, and news of it spread from one market to the next.
In 1902, the son, Adolphe Blanc, who had married Elisa Gervais, took over from his parents. It was Elisa who took over the reins in the kitchen and was to make the name La Mère Blanc famous. She had inherited the secrets of cooking with copious amounts of butter from her mother, Virginie. La Mère Blanc, whom Curnonsky, the elected prince of all lovers of fine food, described in 1933 as "The best cook in the world" had learned everything she knew through instinct and a keen sense of taste. Her cuisine featured local cooking, simple, honest, prepared with love and an eye for detail, using only the best quality, fresh, local ingredients.
As communications became easier, people began to travel from further afield to sample Dombes frogs’ legs with herbs, Bresse chicken in cream and crêpes vonnassiennes, a particular favourite with politician Edouard Herriot. On Sundays, families and groups of friends would travel out from Mâcon on the train. The business prospered.
The arrival of the motor car helped spread the reputation of the Auberge de Vonnas even more quickly. In 1930, the Touring Club de France awarded La Mère Blanc first prize in its Culinary Competition. The best gourmet food writers of the time paid tribute to her in the popular press.
The Club des Cent and the Académie des Gastronomes also heaped praise on her.
In 1934, her eldest son, Jean Blanc, and his wife Paulette, a baker's daughter, took over the business.
Guided in the kitchen by her mother-in-law, Paulette Blanc kept to the same traditional specialities that had forged the inn’s reputation.
The Château d’Epeyssoles sits in the centre of the former seigneury of the same name that appears as early as 1289 among the half-dozen fiefdoms that surrounded the city of Vonnas. Having been owned by a series of feudal families, it fell to the Guyot de la Garde, who named the château after themselves at the end of the 15th century. Their final descendant, Marguerite, sold La Garde to a young middle-class Protestant woman from Bourg, Antoinette Poinsard. Through her, Epeyssoles was to be owned by a succession of great Protestant families, none of them local to Bresse. When Antoinette Poinsard married, the Château de la Garde, now Epeyssoles again, became the property of Jean Du Puy, Count of Ferrassière de Montbrun, whose family had recently distinguished itself in the defence of Protestantism in the Dauphiné region.
In 1656, Espérance Du Puy de Montbrun married Burgrave Frédéric, Count of Dohna, a native of Prussia but also a close cousin of the Princes of Orange-Nassau, in the neighbouring Protestant church of Pont de Veyle. A Stadhouder of the United Provinces, Dohna was held in high regard by Cardinal Marazin, who described him as “completely French”, and seemed destined for an important political career. No sooner was he married than he departed for Orange, where he was appointed Governor.
Louis XIV took control of Orange as soon as he came to power in his own right in 1660. The Burgrave of Dohna therefore settled with his wife near his father-in-law on the Epeyssoles estate, which he liked very much and where his small family was raised with great care, tutored at one point by the philosopher Pierre Bayle (1647-1706).
The Burgrave dreamed of a Republic of the Nations of Europe, as outlined by Henry IV, and devoted his efforts to trying to limit the hegemony of Louis XIV.
He travelled a great deal, dividing his time between Epeyssoles, where he could think and where he wrote his memoirs, and Coppet, where he had acquired the barony, which allowed him to maintain direct contact with the Swiss cantons.
After the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, he retired to Coppet completely. He died in 1688, the same year his German cousin William III of Orange-Nassau was to become King of England.
After the Dohnas, Epeyssoles was owned by a series of families from the 18th to the 20th centuries until it finally came into the hands of Georges Blanc’s ancestors.
The memoirs of the Burgrave of Dohna, written in French, were published by one of his descendants in 1898.
Previously little known in France, they were brought to public attention some 20 years ago by Professor Chaix. The book showed the embryonic Europe, the perhaps surprisingly realistic vision of a 17th century humanist, who appears to us today as one of its founding fathers.