Travel: A meal in Lyon, the global capital of gastronomy

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A long line of female cooks from Lyon, or Mères Lyonnaises, have inspired some of the pioneers of modern French cuisine



The sight of diners tucking into champagne and oysters in leisurely fashion at 10am might be startling to most but is nothing out of the ordinary on a Monday in Lyon, France. We are wandering through Les Halles de Lyon Paul Bocuse, an indoor food hall frequented by locals and tourists alike for its regional produce, from cheese and chocolate to baked goods, fresh meats and wine. Had we arrived a bit earlier, we might have rubbed shoulders with some of Lyon’s great chefs, who can be found there every morning, foraging fresh ingredients for their Michelin-starred restaurants.

Popularly acknowledged as the capital of gastronomy in France, Lyon has over 90 restaurants listed in the Michelin Guide, with 15 holding one Michelin star and five with two stars. The city, which boasts of more restaurants per head than anywhere else in France, has nurtured many notable chefs, from Paul Bocuse, the pioneer of modern French cuisine, to contemporary names such as Claude Bosi and Daniel Boulud.

Lyon’s location, nestled at the confluence of the Rhône and Saône rivers in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region, has been pivotal in cementing its stronghold as the “stomach of France”. Local chefs have, as their birthright, produce that the rest of the world yearns for—Bresse chicken, Charolais beef and cheese from Auvergne, Jura and Ardèche. The Rhône valley is also the largest fruit and vegetable provider of France, while the wineries of Bourgogne, Beaujolais and Côtes du Rhône have ensured that the Lyonnais are oenophiles as well as epicures. A running local joke counts Beaujolais as the region’s third river, which never runs dry.

History has also underwritten the rich gastronomic heritage of the city. Lyon is well known for its welcoming bouchons, bucolic family-owned eateries which are a cross between a bistro and café, mainlining a menu of traditional dishes from cervelle de canut (herbed cheese dip) to quenelles (delicate dumplings starring creamed fish or meat) and dried cured meats. Centred on communal dining, these establishments owe their origins to the silk trade routed through Lyon, having once served as inns or taverns for silk traders who would stop over for a meal, and to groom their horses. The name bouchon itself is a nod to the 16th century term describing the twisted straw brushes used to clean horses.

Homely restaurants are the very heart of Lyon. In the mid-18th century, they were championed by the Mères Lyonnaises, the mothers of Lyon. The long line of female cooks—their origins can be traced back to the 18th century and they had a presence till nouvelle cuisine gained prominence in the 1970s—wove culinary magic with their economical use of local ingredients (such as working with off-cuts of meat), inspiring generations of cooks and sustaining the local community through successive wars. Simple but refined specialities such as champagne sauerkraut, tablier de sapeur (made with beef tripe) and macaroni gratin underpinned the transformation of many mères’ home-style restaurants into Michelin-star establishments frequented by businessmen and dignitaries.

Eugénie Brazier, perhaps the most eminent, was the first person to have received three Michelin stars twice for her restaurant in Lyon and for her chalet at Col de la Luère. The latter is where she trained Paul Bocuse, then a 20-year-old apprentice, who went on to become one of France’s most famous chefs, celebrated for catalysing a shift towards “nouvelle cuisine” that eschews heavy marinades and sauces for lighter, hyper-seasonal dishes.

Laying emphasis on fresh locally sourced produce and clarity of flavour, this eclectic style of cooking is characteristic of many restaurants in Lyon even today. We get a taste of it at Têtedoie, a one Michelin-star restaurant for contemporary dining resting atop Fourvière hill. We sample slow-roasted summer tomatoes with a delicate puff pastry tart, tatin-style, a soft swoop of mascarpone adding the final flourish. An attractive prelude to dessert pairs apricots with more-savoury-than-sweet ice cream swirled together with sheep’s milk. Eponymous chef Christian Têtedoie cuts an elegant figure, distinguished by a red, white and blue collar on his chef’s jacket. The distinction is the hallmark of Meilleurs Ouvriers de France, a gruelling contest organised every three-four years. Translating to “best craftsmen of France”, the title is one that is coveted by all chefs but awarded only to the best of the best by the Organizing Committee for Labor Exhibitions (COET), under the French ministry of national education.

The culinary landscape of Lyon today pays homage to its history, whilst looking to the future. Rustic bouchons remain integral to the city’s traditions, with their signature red and white tablecloths, and hearty meat-heavy dishes typical of Lyonnais food. For a genuine experience, look out for the seal “Les Bouchons Lyonnais”, emblazoned in the windows of the bouchons certified as authentic.

Meanwhile, a new wave of gastronomy has seen the rise of neo-bistros with more laid-back surrounds, alongside new concepts such as “Food Traboule.” Helmed by Brazilian-born Tabata Mey and her husband Ludovic, the re-imagined “food hall” is housed in The Tour Rose, a heritage building which is part of Lyon’s legendary maze of traboules—slender covered passageways which run through the middle of a building to connect different streets. Spread over three floors, seven areas and open-plan kitchen counters, the collaborative food hall is united by a communal dining space in which diners can enjoy the vast repertoire of dishes and cuisines from burgers and pizzas to bistro fare.

The gentle tug between old and new plays out across Lyon. A cruise along its famed rivers reveals a colourful patchwork of old-world painted houses juxtaposed against bright orange contemporary offices and gradations of industrial activity. There is no better way to uncover the depth of Lyonnais culture and cuisine than to be a flâneur, meandering through the charming winding streets in pursuit of both adventure and fulfilment.

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SIX THINGS TO DO IN LYON

Visit Les Halles de Lyon Paul Bocuse: Tracing its origins to 1859, the indoor food market teems with superlative produce, from cheese, chocolate and charcuterie to spices, seafood and more. Don’t miss a bite of brioches aux pralines roses, buttery soft-centred bread speckled with pretty-in-pink candied almonds.

Climb Fourvière Hill for a breathtaking vista of Lyon from outside Basilique Notre Dame de Fourvière (built in a striking Romanesque-Byzantine style). Cross Parc des Hauteurs to find your way to the ancient ruins of the Roman Theatre.

Sip on a hot chocolate or aperitif at the Grand Café des Négociants. Once the place of negotiation for silk and diamond merchants, this resplendent Baroque-style brasserie remains a bolthole for business travellers, artists, even politicians.

Take a scenic drive north of Lyon to explore the wine-growing region of Beaujolais. The vineyards tumbling down the hillside are just as picturesque as the medieval villages cosseted within the hills with their fairy-tale Golden Stone cottages (so named for the ochre hue reflected across the limestone homes as they catch the sunset light).

Pull over at a local caveau (cellar) for an informal wine tasting, before relaxing over coffee at Chateau de Bagnols, an 800-year-old Renaissance castle that is now a luxurious hotel helmed by Relais & Châteaux.

Enjoy an imaginative tipple (or two) at Le Dôme, choosing between creamy cocktails embellished with burrata foam alongside daring concoctions powered by black olive infused gin. Sheathed by a dome, 32m high, this modern bar is part of Intercontinental Lyon’s Hotel Dieu, a landmark in itself—and once a hospital.

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GETTING TO LYON

Lyon has its own airport 25km from the city. As a key rail hub serviced by Rail Europe, the city also enjoys extensive connectivity spanning regional links within France, as well as international links with European destinations from Milan to Geneva. Fast TGV trains leave from Paris regularly through the day, making the journey in just about two hours

Ayushi Gupta Mehra is an economist, an F&B consultant, a self-taught cook and founder of The Foodie Diaries. Follow her adventures on Instagram @The_FoodieDiaries and @Mummylogues.

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