Our new friend Emmanuelle is leaning across the table with a look of bemusement. ‘So’, she recaps, ‘you write about gastronomy and you’ve never been to Lyon before?’
She’s right to be nonplussed. Lyon is the heartland of French cooking, a cuisine created by the famous Mères de Lyon in their bouchons, who wrought alchemy from offal, cheap cuts and the bounty of the region, sending the workers out better fed than the bourgeoisie. What was I thinking?
Anyway, I’m here to remedy this appalling oversight and having the time of my life. What. A. Town. Its two rivers slice through streets that appear to be specifically designed for the food-obsessed pleasure seeker.
Our base in the defiantly quirky Collège Hotel with its old school furniture (yes, actually, as opposed to old-skool) on the edge of Vieux Lyon lets us wander around like kids in a sweetie shop, drinking it all in. Nearby A La Marquise, maybe, for slices of the city’s famous bright pink tarte à la praline, and bugnes, discs of sugar-dusted crisp pastry. Or delicious little Cave des Voyageurs which introduces us to an extraordinary thing: sabodet – Lyonnais sausage, fat and pink and studded with pistachio, cooked for five hours in a barrel full of grape pips and served with cervelle de canut (‘silkworker’s brain’) soft cheese.
Lyon has some amazing markets: the Marché St Antoine snaking along the riverbank, fragrant with its rotisseries of duck and game, and with a killer view of beautiful Notre Dame de Fourvière. But the indoor market at Halles de Lyon Paul Bocuse must now be the market against which all others are measured. It’s a Disneyland for the epicure. There’s foie gras, even macarons and crème brûlées of the precious liver (or take it en croûte, encased in pillowy brioche). Cheese stalls to make you gasp. Forests of charcuterie dangle from the ceilings, including a stall from Colette Sibilia, one of the Mères de Lyon and a key figure on the Lyonnaise food scene. There are the famous quenelles de brochet (moussey pike dumplings), ready for their crayfish-laced sauce nantua. We have to repair upstairs to a wonderful bouchon on the roof – Chez Les Gones – for a gallon of wine to calm down.
Up a creaking funicular to ‘holy hill’, Croix Rousses, largely ignored by tourists but heaven to us: streets are lined with traiteurs, chocolatiers, fromageries, épiceries… Le Canut et les Gones is furnished – kitschly and exuberantly – from marchés aux puces and has a menu of surprising complexity: quenelles of snails, rabbit with Iberico, carré d’agneau with a tarte of grelot onions. The Japanese pastry chef is a particular star: a ‘Paris Brest (via Tokyo)’ with toffeed pears and salted caramel is magnifique. There’s a total cross-section of Lyonnais humanity here, reminding me comically of how much some old ladies are capable of eating.
For a glimpse of modern Lyon, we head to the new Confluence district where the fashionable are out to play at cavernous, river-facing Les Salins. Here, local hero chef, Christian Tetedoie, has magicked up a collision between comptoir, bouchon, smokehouse, wine cellar, bakery and contemporary restaurant. We eat delicate, spice-scented tartare of tuna; rabbit terrine; blissfully buttery pommes purées; and sticky pineapple tarte tatin. There’s a towering wall of barrels from leading chateaux and a clientele of cool families.
If I started outlining our bouchon visits, we’d be here all day. But special mention must go to Daniel et Denise in Old Lyon from another local star, Joseph Viola. It’s here, under the hot, bright lights, while eating award-winning pâté croute, a wonderful, vinous ‘mitonnée de canut’ laden with pork cheek and sausage and a vast wodge of squidgy tarte tatin, that I’m moved to wonder why all Lyonnais aren’t enormously fat. If I lived here, I’d be the size of a funicular tram.
Apart from its other charms, Lyon is home to the 87-year-old regarded as France’s greatest living chef: Paul Bocuse. His touch is everywhere – he’s grandfather to legendary chocolatier Bernachon, friend and patron to the Mères, his bistros colonise all compass points of the city and, of course, there’s his three-Michelin-starred flagship on the city’s fringes.
As gaudily decorated as a Vegas pastiche, this is not what I expect. But there’s something enchanting about the old-fashioned luxury, the formal service, the extraordinary food – a truffled poulet de Bresse cooked inside a whole pig’s bladder, which is dramatically slit open table side and then delivered over two services (pictured, below); the yard-long cheese trolley that never seems to diminish no matter how many slabs of gooey fromage you eat; the carnival of desserts. On paper, I’m over this sort of performance, but I’m seduced like a Mills and Boon heroine.
We leave Lyon with suitcases full of booty: Rosettes de Lyon and Jesus and truffled cervelat sausages from Bonnard and Reynon; a squelch of honking cheeses (St Marcellin and St Felicien almost walk on their own) from Fromagerie Mons; a Bresse chicken complete with extremities. Emmanuelle was right to scoff at my ignorance: this is a France I feared no longer existed but have fallen in love with all over again.
Words MARINA O’LOUGHLIN Photographs DAVID THOMAS
Marina O’Loughlin is The Guardian‘s restaurant critic. She travelled to Lyon with Eurostar and stayed at the College Hotel.
For more on Lyon, see onlylyon.org
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