The city of Lyon is one of France’s best-kept secrets. I lived in Paris for six years and not once did anyone mention Lyon or tell me it was worth the detour. That was foul play, because the quality of life in Lyon is breath-taking. It has the bustle without the hustle. By that, I mean that you can breathe here. You can take your time. You can see the sky thanks to the wide, tree-lined boulevards and the promenades along the banks of its two rivers: the Rhône and the Saône. There are green spaces; wide open, beautiful parks where you can actually sit on the grass unlike the ‘forbidden’ lawns of Parisian parks.
Lyon is a city with two hills and on one of them, a vibrant music festival is held every summer in a Gallo Roman amphitheatre. Paris, city of lights? I don’t think so! First of all, Lyon has its own festival dedicated to light: La Fête des Lumières is a citywide event held over four days starting on 8 December each year. It is free to all and attracts some 3 million visitors annually. Secondly, Lyon is home to the Institut Lumière, celebrating Auguste and Louis Lumière, inventors of film camera. Imagine that. Lyon: the birthplace of cinema and no-one told us about it? Quel dommage!
Let’s back up a bit. Lugdunum was founded by Lucius Munatius Plancus-us-us-us… (he was an officer of Julius Caesar) in 43 BC and then went on to become the capital of city of the Three Gauls. The Romans liked the city for its strategic location, which made it an ideal hub for Gallic communication and operations. In the middle ages annual fairs drew merchants from all over Europe and Lyon became a major centre for the spice and silk trade, which in turn attracted Florentine immigrants who made Lyon a financial centre for banking and insurance. And Lyon is still a strategic hotspot for business, research and education today …
Sitting snugly between the Alps and some of the best wine-growing country in the world (Côte Roties, Condrieu, Saint Joseph, and of course Côte du Rhône and Beaujolais) the city of Lyon is also known to be France’s gastronomic capital, a title endowed by the celebrated French food critic Curnonsky in 1935 and consolidated perhaps by Paul Bocuse, Lyon’s culinary godfather. Every two years the city hosts the Bocuse d’Or international cooking competition to find the world’s next big chef. This event is held during another: Sirah, the international hospitality and food service trade show. It’s like culinary Russian dolls! Or perhaps more aptly a human millefeuille; layer after layer of chef upon chef! Now there’s a picture…
With all of this commotion, it is easy to see why foodies regularly flock to the city to sample elegant, Michelin star cuisine as well as the humble and hearty fare that is served in the city’s numerous bouchons. Ah, the ‘bouchon’. You’ll need this word in your vocabulary if you’re coming to lunch in Lyon. Bouchons are tiny traditional bistros that sprung up in the 1800s to feed the hungry silk workers or ‘Canuts’ as they were known. They were run by women for the most part, known as the ‘mothers’ of Lyon, the most famous being Mère Brazier who, in 1933 became the first woman ever to gain three Michelin stars. Her establishment still stands today and rests in the capable and elegant hands of two star chef Mathieu Viannay, who has respectfully retained but gracefully revisited Mere Brazier’s classic dishes as well as adding his own creations, of course.
I’ll make no bones (pun intended) about it and then you are forewarned: traditional Lyonnaise fare centres on offal! Typical dishes include: Tête de Veau, (beef brains) tablier de sapeur (breaded tripe), and andouillette (a ‘sausage’ made from pigs intestines). Usually though, you will find something ‘non-tripey’ on the menu; Silk weavers’ brains or ‘Cervelle de Canuts’, a creamy, yoghurt-type cheese with chopped chives running through it. You could also sample some quenelles de brochet; pike dumplings in short, but they’re much nicer than they may sound. Light and fluffy and served with a creamy sauce, they’re actually not very ‘fishy’ at all. Of course, if you’re truly stuck and you don’t know which way to turn, why not ask for Jesus? Not the son of God. I am actually talking about sausage, or rather Jésus de Lyon, the local, cured saucisson. Finally, if nothing else appeals, you can always skip straight to the cheese course and have yourself a nice, runny, smelly, creamy Saint Marcellin – or any other French cheese, let’s face it!
I suggest Café des Federations for your initiation into Bouchonnerie, but be prepared to bite off more than you can chew!
Paul Bocuse Food Halls
Well worth a visit even if you don’t buy anything -but you will! I am told that if you get here early enough, you can find the man himself having a coffee with Renée or la ‘Mère’ Richard, as she is dubbed. She is the most famous cheesemonger in all of Lyon, she supplies any bouchon worth its salt and she can supply you too! But there’s more to les halles than cheese. You can buy wine, fish, charcuterie, macarons, chocolats. But best of all, come early on a Sunday morning to enjoy some oysters and white wine. What? That is a healthy breakfast. And if oysters don’t float your boat, why not have some pata negra and red wine at Bellota & Bellota. What else are you going do on a Sunday morning? Croissants are for wimps, n’est ce pas?
The Banks of the Rhone & The banks of the Saone
For a more ‘domestic’ market, the kind that doesn’t have lobsters swimming in tanks but does sell you olives and cauliflowers, I recommend the banks of the Rhone between the Pont Wilson et Pont de la Guillotière on a Thursday afternoon or alternatively, the Peninsula on the banks of the Saone between Place des Jacobins and Cordeliers on a Sunday morning.
By the Gallo Roman Théatre at St. Just: