Curnonsky once referred to Lyon as “the gastronomic capital of the world”, and he knew a thing or two about gastronomy. Such was his reputation, legend has it that all of Lyon’s restaurants would reserve a table for him just on the off chance that he would wander into theirs! Anyway, it was with his claim in mind that I went there myself to find out if what he said might be true.
Now ‘gastronomy’ is very much a loaded term these days, and in order to understand what the cuisine is that the famous Meres lyonnaises gave birth to here in the nineteenth century it is perhaps important to note that Curnonsky advocated simple food over the complicated, rustic over the refined, and two aphorisms that are associated with him are, “La cuisine, c’est quand les choses ont le goût de ce qu’elles sont”, “Et surtout, faites simple!” Now in Lyon the typical restaurants that you find are called bouchons, traditional places that serve local fare. Don’t expect haute cuisine in these. What you will get is ‘real’ food, and above all ‘good’ food, the type of food that led Curnonsky to refer to Lyon as “the gastronomic capital of the world”. These are the places I needed to visit. It is important to know though that there are lots of establishments here that call themselves bouchons now, but there are only in fact a handful of certified ones, and these are the ones you would need to get yourself to.
As with any weekend break, heading to the cathedral and the old town is often a good idea, and so it is here. If you base yourself in Le Vieux Lyon, or the 5e arrondissement, you will find a good number of ‘real’ bouchons in walking distance. The College Hotel is a decent place to stay at – especially for a teacher – with its ‘back to school’ theme, and it even has a Pablo Reinoso on display, specially designed for the hotel. Next door to the hotel you will find the affiliated Baràgones bar that has a very good selection of rums and whiskies for your nightcap later, but before that we must hit the bouchons…
Almost over the road – or the ancient cobbles of the Rue Lainerie at any rate – we found our first one, Les Fines Gueules, where I can strongly recommend the terrine de queue de boeuf, the cassolette de tripes, the pieds de cochons en crépinette, and the tête et langue de veau with sauce Gribiche. Indeed, I often found myself having to order two mains for myself rather than a starter and main so that I could taste as many specialities as possible. All this is washed down with good wine, either a light Beaujolais coming from north of Lyon or a more full-bodied Côtes du Rhône coming from the south, whatever your preference on the night.
As Keith Floyd quite rightly put it once, “No good cooking comes without good drinking!”
Oh, I maybe should have mentioned this earlier, but be prepared to get to know the owners and those eating around you in these places, for these bouchons are generally smallish, convivial places where you don’t have to worry about talking too loudly, waiting for the waiter to pour your wine, having your elbows on the table, or eating with your knife! It’s all rather relaxed, thankfully. And also don’t expect these places to be necessarily ‘cheap’ either, just because it’s simple, rustic grub. What you get is always done extremely well, and you will be more than happy to pay for it, but pay for it you will! It’s a funny old thing isn’t it? I’m thinking of other things, like conger eel, which fishermen used to threw back not so long ago, and oysters, which, as Dickens’ Sam Weller remarks in The Pickwick Papers, “Always seem to go” with poverty. But times change don’t they, as do people, places, markets, fashions, and tastes, and now some shrewd souls are making good money from recovering and rebranding such ‘specialities’.
Anyway, after eating well you might want a few pints to wash it all down with – before that nightcap that is – and you will find plenty of decent Irish pubs in the vicinity to cater for just that, and an English one right next door called The Smoking Dog, which will do nicely for tonight, it being not too far back to the hotel, and the hotel’s bar.
Now the weekend isn’t just about bouchonsso the next day we are off to do a little visiting, up Fourvière Hill to the ruins of Lugdunum, once a provincial capital of the Roman Empire where the emperors Claudius and Caracalla were born. Anyway, you don’t have to be a classicist like me to appreciate all this. The ruins are extensive and well preserved and there is a wonderful little museum alongside, and it is all free too.
Afterwards we head back downhill and then over one of Lyon’s two rivers, the Saône, and stumble across a wonderful food market stretching right along the farther bank which makes us feel peckish again! We head to another gastronomical landmark, Les Halles de Lyon-Paul Bocuse, named of course after the city’s famous chef who passed away only last year and who remains the longest-standing recipient of three Michelin stars (that being over 40 years) Now even a stroll around les halles is enough, but while you are there you may as well eat, and so it was that we took a seat at the bar at Les Garçons Bouchers and enjoyed a most succulent poulet de Bresse, a chicken which that other epicure Brillat-Savarin once described as “the Queen of poultry, the poultry of kings”, which has appellation d’origine controllée status, and which is now generally regarded as being the best table chicken in the world, and which commands a premium price too.
But boy it was good!
Things are heating up a little nearby in La Place Bellecour(which Everton fans took over a couple of years back before we were beaten 3-0) due to a run in between rival gilet jaune gangs, so we head back across the Saône and back to The Smoking Dog to watch a game. I forgot to mention, there are Six Nations matches being played this weekend, and one of them is England v France.
After a good few pints watching us win 44-8 and somehow winning the sweep in the process we make a hasty retreat from the doubly unhappy locals and head to our second bouchon just down the way, Le Laurencin, which occupies a quaint, sixteenth century building. Now this wasn’t our favourite bouchon, perhaps stemming from the moment when the rather surly owner told us to wait outside until a table became available, or from then tasting that other Lyonnaise speciality, l’andouillette, which, unlike that favourite cheese of French kings, Maroilles, really does taste as bad as it smells, and I won’t tell you what it smells of. This is the only thing in the whole wide world I won’t eat again, and the only thing on this trip that I wouldn’t recommend. Anyway, we finished off at The Big White down the road which has an unbelievable stick of world beers, and we soon forgot about andouillettes.
Other good bouchons in the old town include Daniel et Denise Saint Jean and Les Lyonnaise, but we decided to be slightly more adventurous the next day and head back over the Saône again to the Café Compoir Abel in the 2e arrondissement, Lyon’s oldest bouchon, which has been here since 1726, and here we enjoyed a truly wonderful experience, rognons de veau with sauce Madère, gratin d’écrevisses, and the star of the show, ris de veau aux Morilles à la crème.
In conclusion then, I can’t know whether Lyon is “the gastronomic capital of the world” or not, and I don’t know whether that can even be said. I’ve heard, for instance, that there’s rather good eating to be had in San Sebastián over in Spain (note for future weekend break). But what I can say is that I did have a very good time trying to find out…
P.S. All recipes for the meals mentioned here can be found in my Epicurean Cookbooks
BIO: Paul T. M. Jackson is a translator, writer, and poet based in Provence. Further information about him can be found on his website, http://paultmjackson.com
If you enjoy these stories, please donate $1. We’re committed to remaining advert-free and so your support makes all the difference. Thanks again.