Lyon – The Stomach of France

Aptly named the stomach of France, eating in Lyon is seemingly endless. There are a mass of restaurants, bouchons, markets and traditional cuisines to be sampled. I had been warned by a French comrade from university that I would struggle to sample everything the city had to offer in just four days. With this in mind, I decided to select a few of Lyon’s most famous eating traditions and establishments to best understand the city’s rich culinary heritage.

First on the list, a typical ‘bouchon Lyonnaise.’ After a tedious coach journey from Dijon and a tiresome trudge through the city in October drizzle, my editor and I were in dire need of a hearty supper to quell our woes. Fortunately, Lyon offers plenty of institutions to cater to this exact need. Originally Inns which catered for silk workers during the 17th and 18th century, bouchons are now famous for serving up traditional Lyonnasie cuisine and a welcoming atmosphere. After a brief trawl through google recommendations one establishment kept reappearing. ‘Le Bouchon de Filles’, mentioned in the Michelin guide, upholds every standard a typical bouchon should possess. Our table was small, barely able to stand under the barrage of courses that came throughout the evening, the gentleman on my right mistook my thigh for his dates’ and I was persistently tickled by the hairy arm of my other neighbour, a Juventus fan in town for a Champions League fixture. Intimate is an understatement. Warped, ancient beams weaved across the ceiling and a strange collection of antiques lined the walls, tradition lingered in the air.

To begin, we ordered a Kir each. Before we had finished the aperitifs, our starters arrived; herring rillettes, more potato than herring, was stodgy, however, the zesty lemon against the oily fish was a pleasant start. Alongside this came two enormous salads; a lentil salad and a grated white cabbage remoulade topped with smoked lardons. These were both delicious but far too large, it was a good job I hadn’t eaten all day. Satisfied but not blown away by our entrees, our main course soon reversed this opinion. My editor ordered skirt beef fillet which was a perfect pink and it came with dauphinoise potatoes, swimming in cream and garlic. The dish was served with chimichurri sauce, a South American topping for beef, however, the parsley and vinegar flavours strangely complimented the creamy potatoes. I struggled to choose my main from the excellent selection on the menu. Eventually, I settled on a pork cheek hotpot. A medley of root vegetables, which still maintained a slight crunch, sat proud in a rich, fragrant broth – the flavour of which still lingers on my taste buds. The star, however, I will never forget. Slow cooked, for what must have been an eternity, the cheeks flaked apart and required little chewing. The flavour was a higher truth. Porky beyond description, the fat had melted away leaving delicate circles of tender meat. Served with a large tablespoon of Dijon mustard which, when dissolved in the broth, left me slurping every last drop from the bowl. No meal in France is complete without cheese. When it arrived I was already full but with one glance at the slice of brie that was trying to crawl from the plate left me determined to complete the experience. After finishing the cheese with ease, next came our desserts. I ordered a raspberry and praline cake with praline ice cream, famous in Lyon. It was soft and light but a little too sweet for me. My editor’s chocolate fondant was more to my taste, more cocoa than sugar and sprinkled with large chunks of sea salt. Our evening at ‘Bouchon de Filles’ lasted for three hours. As soon as you stepped in off the street it was as if time stood still, the ancient interior and the atmosphere of tradition captivated us and after leaving, we felt we had become a part of the history at the fantastic little eatery.

My first Bouchon experience, coupled with a Châteauneuf de Pape addled potter through the old town after supper, left me with an almost romantic connection to Lyon, despite having only been there for a few hours. This infatuation, however, was soon shattered when I went to bed. Being recent graduates, we decided to cut costs in Lyon and stay in a shared room at ‘Away Hostel’. Initially, I slipped into a wine induced slumber. At 5am, however, my bunk-buddy arrived back from an evening on the tiles. With complete abandon for every member of the temporary community he flipped on the lights, undressed and hopped into bed. When comfortably seated, he proceeded to scoff a bowl of cereal making noises I had never heard before, I can only compare them to an animal eating from a trough. His entire disregard for social etiquette leads me to believe he was raised on a farm.

Infuriated after my rude awakening, the only thing that could lift my spirits was a day of food filled fun. Luckily, that is exactly what we had planned. Les Halles de Paul Bocuse, unlike the other covered markets we had visited during our time in France, was a polished, almost corporate shopping experience. As we entered, we were met by restaurants filled with businessmen lunching and expensively dressed tourists. Given it was lunchtime and I was still feeling a little glum, we decided to join them. Eager to get amongst the stalls and shops that lay beyond the restaurants we ordered two plates to share. First came the chef’s salad; I can see why he wanted to attribute his name to the dish. Baby squid adorned a crispy romaine green salad topped with a tomato tartare and a healthy drizzle of good quality balsamic. Light, refreshing and very tasty. Opting next for quenelles Lyonnaises, what I can only describe as fish and potato dumplings, this particular quenelle was made with pike. Slightly disconcerted by the choice of fish I was surprised by the flavour. Not muddy, like most river fish seem to taste, and soaked in a creamy fish bisque I was glad to have tried this dish, another tradition in Lyon.

Energised by our light lunch we hit the market. Like all of France’s covered markets, Paul Bocuse housed boulangeries, fromageries, boucheries and poissoniers. Unlike the other markets we had visited, however, each stall was very professionally curated; well-groomed vendors clad in branded aprons were well rehearsed salesmen and what they sold was clearly at the luxury end of the spectrum. Although this sophisticated bazaar sold beautiful, quality produce I felt it lacked the character of other French markets, there is something charming about buying goods from the person who grew or made them. Regardless of the soulless stalls at Paul Bocuse the food on sale was excellent, well worth the short trip across the Rhône.

Even though I only skimmed the surface of the culinary delights Lyon has to offer, it left me eulogising. Four days of endless eating, however, was all I could stomach in the stomach of France.

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