April 24, 2022 Lyon has been called “The Gastronomic Capital of France.” What does that mean? That the chefs in their bouchons are alchemists who turn the offal (awful?) into the extraordinary.
The City of Lyon
Lyon is the “second city” of France, after Paris. It feels far less touristy, and easily walkable. The Romans founded the city in 43BC at the confluence of the Saone and Rhone Rivers. For centuries, it has served as an important trading hub between the Mediterranean, The Alps, Burgundy, and the heart of agricultural France. Silk manufacture made for a wealthy merchant class and large working class starting in about the 1500s. This bubbling combination of wealth, masses of labor, and trade resulting in the rich food tradition of today.
Art and Architecture
While small, the fine arts museum had some moving sculptures. The impressionist paintings left less of an impression.
The architecture of the old city (Vieux Lyon) is fascinating though. Roman ruins, massive cathedrals, and massive merchant houses with hidden passages (“traboules”) laced throughout. The latter were built as short-cuts for busy silk-workers.
The traboules were important in modern history also, as secret passages during WW2. Lyon was a key hub of the French Resistance. A secret free press, clandestine intelligence operations, and saboteurs made Nazi occupation difficult. The Lyon population paid the price, with many imprisoned, shipped to concentration camps, or tortured and killed. The Resistance and Deportation Center is a somber reminder; I couldn’t help but think of Ukraine as we visited.
The Gastronomic Capital of France
Back to the food! Lyonnais cuisine is less pretentious than you might think. While there are 20 Michelin-starred restaurants here, the real scene is at traditional bouchons. The bouchons were started by “mères lyonnaises” (mothers of Lyon). These were cooks for the wealthy merchants who opened restaurants on the side to make ends meet. They fed hungry workers from the silk factories who could not afford the haute cuisine of the bourgeois. So the mères made cheap “inedible parts” incredible. France’s most famous chef, Paul Bucose, studied in the mères kitchens.
The food, while mostly excellent, is not for the faint of heart. I’d say the dishes were, on average, 50% fat content, then covered in cream or butter. Dessert is typically a cheese platter or Crème brûlée. I expect my cholesterol is up about 100 points in four days. Totally worth it.
So what did we eat? “Silk workers’ brains,” duck liver, cow bone, veal head, fish dumplings, snails, cow udder and other questionable fare. They all sound better in their native French: cervelle de canut, foi gras, moelle de boeuf, tête de veau, quenelle, escargot, and tetine de vache. But that is what we experienced with Lyonnaise cuisine: elegant language for humble, earthy and excellent food.
Andouillette was an interesting local sausage. It is not, as one might assume, a smaller andouille sausage like you might find in New Orleans. Rather, it is natural sausage casing (entrails) stuffed with, um, more entrails. Yes, a coarse tripe sausage with the not-so-subtle taste and smell of a stable. The rich Dijon cream sauce helped. I won’t order it again.
Up Next: Wine
We will continue the food adventures, but next the focus shifts to wine. We head to Beaujolais and Bourgogne (Burgundy) tomorrow, then on to Champagne. Salut!