Lyon's cuisine is a traveller's dream

Marcel Theroux

The French city of Lyon has long embraced the simple pleasures of traditional cuisine. Travel writer and foodie Marcel Theroux revisits the city his taste buds first fell in love with five years ago. 

The foodie Olympics

foodie olympics
The Bocuse d’Or in full swing. Image via Hungary Today

I first came to Lyon in 2011 to watch the Bocuse d’Or, the world’s most prestigious cooking competition. Held every two years, the Bocuse takes place in a cavernous auditorium amid a frenzy of flag-waving, drum-beating spectators. In front of them, 24 chefs, competing for their nations, strive to produce two courses of impeccable food.

Everything about the event is over the top. Each course—one of meat, one of fish—is presented to the judges on huge salvers. The finished food is unnaturally elaborate, bearing the same relation to something you might actually eat as the physique of the Incredible Hulk does to a normal body shape.

That evening, on the recommendation of a friend, I went into the city centre to eat at Café Comptoir Abel, a tiny, typically Lyon restaurant known as a bouchon. It turned out to be four homely, wood-panelled dining rooms, hung with posters and a dessert menu written in chalk on a blackboard.

I had been advised to try the pike quenelle. It arrived on a sizzling plate in creamy mushroom sauce. By an extraordinary act of alchemy, the chef had turned a boney and basically inedible pike into a soft bolster of delicately fishy consolation. It was sublime.

 

 

"The finished food bears the same relation to something you might actually eat as the physique of the Incredible Hulk does to a normal body shape"

 

 

I asked the chef, Alain Vigneron, what it had to do with all those grandiose offerings at the Bocuse d’Or. “What I do,” he replied modestly, “is grandmother’s cooking.”

Walking home from Abel, I had the feeling of rediscovering something that foreign visitors have been learning in France for at least a century: that excellent food is not a contest, or a luxury, or a fashion, but something more simple and intimate—a daily act of conviviality. I felt I understood why Curnonsky, the renowned French early-20th-century food writer, had declared Lyon the capital of gastronomy. And I made a promise to return one day and bring my family.

Earlier this year, judging that my eight-year-old daughter and six-year-old son might finally be old enough for the adventure, I rented a flat in a 19th-century building on the Quai Saint-Antoine, in the heart of the city.

From the moment we arrived, it was clear that the life of the city centres on food. Six mornings a week, there was a huge outdoor food market on the embankment directly beneath us, with more than a hundred bewitching stalls of fresh vegetables, fish, meat, cheese, bread and charcuterie.

On our first visit, we came away with a roast chicken, a sausage baked inside a brioche, a baguette and some cheese, which we took for a picnic in the Roman amphitheatre on Fourvière hill.

Read more: Portugal’s love affair with fish

 

A culinary Cinderella story

Eugénie Brazier
Paul Bocuse and Eugénie Brazier. Image via Nicolas Salagnac

The food of Lyon has been praised for at least 2,000 years. In the city’s Gallo-Roman Museum, we saw ancient testimonies to the quality of its pork, wine and chicken.

Its culinary excellence is in part an accident of geography; the city sits at the intersection of several of France’s greatest wine regions and its cooks are able to draw on nearby delicacies: great fruit and vegetables, Charolais beef, blue-legged Bresse chickens, pork, snails, game and freshwater fish.

But the city’s modern reputation was made in the 19th century when a cohort of young women founded restaurants and spent their lives perfecting and serving a handful of dishes, all based around the local produce. They became known as Les Mères, the mothers.

The most celebrated of all was Eugénie Brazier, born in 1895, whose life was a culinary Cinderella story. Aged 19 and unmarried, she gave birth to a son and had to leave her village in disgrace. She found work under Mère Fillioux, the most famous chef in Lyon, and finally opened a restaurant of her own.

Relentless hard work, a commitment to the best ingredients and rare talent saw her become in 1933 the first chef to command six Michelin stars—three for each of her two restaurants. She died in 1977. Plump and smiling in her surviving photographs, she still exudes an unmistakable steeliness.

 

A superstar chef

bocuse

Mère Brazier’s true heir is the man responsible for Lyon’s gastronomic ascendancy in the 20th century: Paul Bocuse, the superstar chef who founded the Bocuse d’Or. Not only is the competition named after him, but its trophies are gold, silver and bronze statuettes of the man himself. The fact that Monsieur Bocuse can pull off this kind of self-advertisement is a tribute to his suavity and the genuine esteem in which he’s held. 

Paul Bocuse began his apprenticeship under Mère Brazier in 1946. He’s always acknowledged a debt to her. Now aged 88, Bocuse is virtually a gastronomic deity. Lyon’s covered market was renamed in his honour in 2006.

His flagship restaurant, the Auberge du Pont de Collonges, stands on the Saône, a 15-minute drive from the centre of Lyon. The evening I went, the slopes of Croix-Rousse hill were gilded in the late-afternoon light. As we drove, I told my wife I’d had job interviews that I felt less nervous about. I was intimidated by the expense—enormous—and the feeling of entering the rarefied air of a culinary Valhalla.

 

 

"Paul Bocuse is virtually a gastronomic deity"

 

 

Bocuse’s other restaurants follow recent innovations, offering foams and the like. But here, in a strangely garish former mill that’s festooned with pictures of the master, Bocuse’s team serves his Greatest Hits.

Bresse chicken, poached with slivers of black truffle under its skin, is a dish Bocuse would have seen prepared by Mère Brazier herself. It arrived at our table in the pig’s bladder in which it had been poached, ballooning like a brontosaurus egg. The waiter punctured the bag, removed the bird and carved it expertly.

First, we ate the legs in a sweet and woody morel mushroom sauce. Then the breasts were served on a separate plate with dressed endive. It was one of a handful of truly extraordinary meals I’ve eaten.

 

Read the full feature in the July edition of Reader's Digest

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