Brioche studded with rose-pink pralines, oozy, honking Saint-Félicien and Saint-Marcellin cheeses, cured pork sausages, pike quenelles in creamy crayfish sauce, macaroni gratin, paté en croute and Beaujolais wine. Lyon is heaven for a greedy girl like me — eye-popping, mouth-watering, delicious amazingness lurks on almost every corner. It would be no exaggeration to say this city in the Rhône-Alpes region of southeast France is one of the most remarkable food destinations I’ve ever visited. And certainly, the Lyonnaise love to remind anyone who’ll listen about a title bestowed upon the city in 1925 by the famous French food critic Curnonsky, who dubbed it ‘the world capital of gastronomy’ — because they believe it to be absolutely true.
At the aptly named Brasserie des Confluences — located at the meeting point of the rivers Rhône and Saône, two major elements of a terroir that’s blessed Lyon with such astonishing produce — co-owner and executive chef Guy Lassausaie explains what makes this area a culinary paradise. “Lyon is at a crossroads, of the Rhône, Saône, La Bresse, Bourgogne and Beaujolais and we have products from all around. We have the influence of Spain, Italy and Switzerland, so it’s a delicious mélange. All these rich surroundings bring wonderful things to our kitchens.”
Sitting beside me at the table, in his chef’s whites trimmed with the blue, red and white collar that marks him out as having been accorded the prestigious title of Meilleurs Ouvriers de France (MoF), Guy laughs and points out that it’s simply not possible to be objective about Lyon, because “we are the best.”
“Lyon is a great city for food — you can eat something good at all prices. Even a little sandwich is very good,” says the two-Michelin-starred chef (from his namesake restaurant, in Chasselay). “History here is very important. Good cooking has been passed through the generations. It’s been in my family since 1906. The family story of the chef and the restaurant is important. It’s a heritage. In lots of places in the world, the chefs are young, they have no story and they are the first ones there. That’s the difference.”
Lyon’s gastronomic story can’t be told without going back to the famous Mères Lyonnaises (‘Mothers of Lyon’), a lineage of female chefs stretching back to the former house cooks of the city’s wealthy silk weavers and merchants who left their employers after the French Revolution and opened simple bouchons — the fabulous little cafes with red-and-white tablecloths that are still cherished today. The cuisine they pioneered was born of thrift skill, with stomachs, entrails, ears, snouts and feet all featuring prominently in the dishes they created. The most famous Mère, Eugénie Brazier, garnered three Michelin stars in 1933 and in many ways was the mother of Lyonnaise high gastronomy, as well as being the woman who taught the city’s most famous chef, Paul Bocuse, everything he knows. She believed in the farm-to-table philosophy before it was even a thing.
These first bouchons were frequented by canuts (silk weavers), who came for mâchons (a mid-morning meal), after their night’s work. Traditionally eaten at 9am, it would begin with a communard (an aperitif made with crème de cassis and red wine), followed by cheap pork cuts, or tripe and entrails, washed down with Beaujolais — a satisfying and filling meal for people who worked 18-hour days.
A passionate advocate of the bouchon tradition and president of local association Les Bouchons Lyonnais, Joseph Viola runs three of the most famous bouchons in the city, all christened Daniel et Denise. I head to the one on Rue de Créqui, where I find Joseph (in whites with MoF stripes) double-cheek-kissing customers, and joining them for a chat at their table. He greets me cheerily, demonstrating a cornerstone of what makes a great bouchon — conviviality. He brings a small pot of the celebrated cervelle de canut (‘silk weaver’s brain’), made from fromage blanc (creamy soft cheese), sliced shallots, dill, olive oil, salt and pepper whipped into a light cream to be spread on pieces of toast. Oeuf poché en meurette à la bourguignonne, is a revelation — a poached hen’s egg served in a rich red-wine sauce, with button mushrooms, diced bacon, onions and shallots. Joseph was the first chef to reintroduce pâté en croûte in Lyon after it had disappeared from menus and his crunchy, glorious golden crust encases duck foie gras and calf sweetbreads. And there’s another Lyonnaise speciality that’s an absolute triumph here — quenelle de brochet with Nantua sauce, a light, airy, pike quenelle served with a crayfish sauce — the two stars of the dish coming from the Alpine streams to the east of the city.
Martin Herbelin is one of three 25-year-old, food-loving entrepreneurs behind Le Food Trip, a company that creates bespoke self-guided tours to meet food artisans in Lyon (and also Paris). Martin takes me to Crèmerie Saint Antoine to meet with owner Catherine Fève who offers us tastings of Saint-Félicien and Saint-Marcellins. At Maison Pralus, we try a praluline, a fat brioche stuffed with the city’s famous pink pralines — almonds crusted with rose-tinted sugar — and discover why it is that up to 800 pralulines are sold on any Saturday.
There are many markets in Lyon — on the banks of the Saône at Quai Saint-Antoine, and at the top of La Croix-Rousse hill — but the must-see is Les Halles de Lyon-Paul Bocuse, 6,000 square metres of high-end food hall, with 58 shops inside. Here, my guide, Anne Ravet, tells me that during the Renaissance, Lyon held four fairs a year, each lasting for a month, to which producers from across the globe would bring food and spices to sell. “We could find all the products of the world, so we were a world city for gastronomy,” she explains.
At Charcuterie Sibilia we bump into a fabulous Mère de Lyon, Colette ‘Coco’ Sibelia, a key figure in the city’s gastronomic history, loved for her sausages, including rosette and Jésus de Lyon — not least by Bocuse himself. She’s now sold her business (she’s at the market to do her shopping) but she’s still the queen of saucissons — glorious in chiffon, blingy jewellery and bouffon hair. “I was a friend of Monsieur Bocuse and he talked a lot about me and helped make me and my sausages famous,” she says. “But I can’t tell you what’s so special about them. It’s a secret.”
Later, another artisan welcomes me with a cheeky, laughing face full of utter delight. Richard Sève is a famous chocolatier in a region famous for chocolate. Dressed in a brown leather apron, he guides me round his factory like a devilish imp, inhaling the smells and tasting his confections. Chocolate is historically associated with Lyon because of the city’s geography. “The beans could arrive by river, road and train,” Richard explains. “And we’re near Italy for hazelnuts, Spain for almonds. And people in Lyon love to eat and love chocolate, they like sweets. It’s in their DNA to have really good products, especially locally made.”
Standing beside a vast copper cauldron that mixes the almonds with the rose-hued sugar, Richard tells me that the colour is inspired by the roses beloved of the region’s growers, and the flavour is vanilla. As a young pâtissière, he modernised the recipe for pink praline tarts that had been abandoned in the post-war rationing years. Now, they’re one of the culinary keystones of Lyon. “Gastronomy is poetry sometimes,” says Richard, as he offers me a tart. I taste it. He’s right. In fact, this piece of patisserie is almost lyrical.
A taste of Lyon
Michelin-starred chef Anthony Bonnet embraces the farm-to-table ethos by growing his own veggies and keeping beehives on the roof. He also makes his butter from Lyon cream, heather flower honey and fennel, but his signature pigeon dish is the star of the show — breast fillet stuffed with liver and crisp-fried bread crammed with confit leg, all served with spicy fruit.
How Much: Three courses without wine from £83 per person.
Le Canut et Les Gones
There’s a great flea-market vibe inside this little restaurant, which has 350 vintage clocks on the walls. This is technically a bouchon but the food is what you might call bistronomique. Owner Franck Blanc and chef Junzo Matsuno have created an affordable, but delightful, set menu. We tried a starter of crab mousse with herbs and flowers, kaffir lime leaf oil and samphire, and a main of cod, mussels, grey prawns, pinto beans, fennel and pickled red onions.
How Much: Three-course lunch without wine from £18.50 per person; dinner from £27.
Mathieu Rostaing-Tayard is one of Lyon’s hip, young chefs. His menu changes fortnightly, as per the availability of ingredients. There are only two options per course, with a well-priced set menu for lunch and dinner. We had a stunning starter of snails, bacon, peas, celtuce and garlic flowers, and a main of Vercors trout, smoked beans, cucumber, kohlrabi and wood sorrel.
How Much: Three courses without wine from £14 per person; dinner from £35.
Five to try
Saint-Félicien and Saint-Marcellin
Not from the city but the surrounding countryside, these creamy cheeses are adored in Lyon.
Vanilla-scented, rose-hued almonds, roasted and crusted in pink sugar, Eaten on their own or used to make pastries like tarte à la praline.
Quenelle de brochet, sauce nantua
Puffy pike quenelles baked in the oven and served with a deliciously creamy crayfish sauce.
A local wine, of which the locals joke: “There are three rivers in Lyon: the Rhône, the Saône and the Beaujolais.”
Sausages, like Jésus de Lyon, rosette, saucisson à cuire, cervelas, sabodet and andouilette, are and worshipped like a religion in Lyon.
How to do it
Eurostar services from London St Pancras International to Lyon Part Dieu station from £90 return.
Published in the November 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)