France’s Food Cap­i­tal

The French city of Lyon has long em­braced the sim­ple plea­sures of tra­di­tional cui­sine

Reader's Digest Asia Pacific - - Cover - BY MAR­CEL THEROUX FROM TRAVEL & LEISURE

IFIRST CAME TO LYON in 2011 to watch the Bo­cuse d’Or, the world’s most pres­ti­gious cook­ing com­pe­ti­tion. Held ev­ery two years, the Bo­cuse d’Or takes place in a cav­ernous au­di­to­rium amid a frenzy of flag­wav­ing, 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 is pre­sented to the judges on huge salvers. The 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.

The year I went, first, sec­ond and third places were all taken by teams from Scan­di­navia, a re­sult that prompted laments about the de­cline of France as a culi­nary su­per­power.

That even­ing, I went into the city cen­tre to eat at Café Comp­toir Abel, a tiny, typ­i­cally Ly­on­naise restau­rant known as a bou­chon. It turned out to be four homely, wood-pan­elled din­ing rooms hung with posters and a dessert menu writ­ten 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 bony and ba­si­cally ined­i­ble pike into a soft bol­ster of del­i­cately fishy con­tent­ment. It was sub­lime.

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

Walk­ing home from Abel, I had the feel­ing of re­dis­cov­er­ing some­thing 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 men­tal prom­ise to re­turn one day and bring my fam­ily.

Ear­lier this year, judg­ing that my young daugh­ter and son might be old enough for the ad­ven­ture, I rented an apart­ment 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, toma­toes from Provence, a sausage baked in­side a brioche, a baguette and some cheese, which we took for a pic­nic in the Ro­man am­phithe­atre on Fourvière hill.

From here, we could look down on the city and see ev­ery phase of its his­tory: the Ro­man stones of the am­phithe­atre; the ter­ra­cotta roof tiles, tow­ers and court­yards of the me­dieval city; the grand 18th- and 19th-cen­tury build­ings of Presqu’île; and the mod­ern city be­yond.

THE FOOD OF LYON has been praised for at least 2000 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, blue­legged 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 then spent their lives per­fect­ing a hand­ful of dishes, all based on 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 pho­to­graphs, she ­ex­udes an un­mis­tak­able stee­li­ness.

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 stat­uettes of the man him­self. That Mon­sieur Bo­cuse can pull off this kind of self-ad­ver­tise­ment

is a trib­ute to his suavity and the ­gen­uine es­teem in which he is held.

Paul Bo­cuse be­gan his ap­pren­tice­ship un­der Mère Bra­zier in 1946. He has al­ways ac­knowl­edged a pro­found debt to her. Now 91, Bo­cuse is ­vir­tu­ally a gas­tro­nomic de­ity. Lyon’s cov­ered mar­ket was re­named in his hon­our in 2006. His flag­ship restau­rant, L’Au­berge du Pont de Col­longes, stands on the Saône, a 15- minute drive out of 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 that I’d had job in­ter­views I felt less ner­vous about. I was in­tim­i­dated by the ex­pense – enor­mous – and the feel­ing of en­ter­ing the rar­efied air of a culi­nary Val­halla.

Bo­cuse’s other res­tau­rants fol­low re­cent in­no­va­tions, of­fer­ing foams and the like. But here, in a strangely gar­ish for­mer mill that is 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 in my life.

WE QUICKLY FELL IN LOVE with Lyon’s big squares, its leafi­ness, its re­laxed pace of life, its lack of crowds. Be­neath and be­hind the vis­i­ble city lay a sec­ond one of hid­den me­dieval court­yards, bricked-up wells and steep Re­nais­sance stair­cases.

In the morn­ings we dipped crois­sants in hot choco­late and watched work­ers grab­bing espresso and men slap­ping two-euro coins on the zinc counter for an 8am glass of rosé.

Lyon is an odd, bi­nary place: it has two dif­fer­ent hills – Fourvière and Croix-Rousse, one his­tor­i­cally a place of wor­ship, the other a place of work – two dif­fer­ent rivers, the slow-mov­ing Saône and the more tur­bu­lent Rhône; it also has its two cuisines – the cel­e­brated in­her­i­tors of the tra­di­tions of Les Mères, and the de­motic food served in the city’s bou­chons.

The bou­chon is the pla­tonic ideal of a cer­tain kind of restau­rant. In­side, it’s al­ways the year 1927. There’s dark wood, red-and-white-checked table­cloths, framed prints, a big vase of roses. No-one is in a hurry, but every­thing is done with brisk ex­per­tise. Its glo­ries are sim­ple ones: salade ly­on­naise with ba­con and a poached egg on top; pick­led her­ring with pota­toes; sausage. There are of­ten no more than half a dozen main cour­ses, with pork and tripe dishes well rep­re­sented.

The gutsy, af­ford­able, un­fussy bou­chon food – grand­mother’s cook­ing – is a demo­cratic cui­sine. Th­ese are the dishes of a proud and as­sertive ur­ban work­ing class. The leisurely bou­chon meal is a pointed ri­poste to the com­mer­cial logic that drives har­ried work­ers to gob­ble sand­wiches at their desks. Af­ter all, what does it profit a man if he gain the en­tire world, and lose his lunch hour?

AN APPELLATION CONTRÔLÉE sys­tem awards a la­bel of au­then­tic­ity to cer­tain bou­chons. There are 24 that meet the cri­te­ria: a com­bi­na­tion of am­bi­ence, a com­mit­ment to tra­di­tional Ly­on­naise dishes and high culi­nary stan­dards. We had to give up any hope of eat­ing at all of them. There’s only so much tablier de sapeur – a thin square of tripe crumbed and fried like a schnitzel – and coq au vin that you can eat in a sin­gle day. Then there are Lyon’s newer mae­stros, play­ing vari­a­tions on its tra­di­tions of ex­cel­lence: Pa­trick Hen­riroux at Bo­cuse’s other alma mater, La Pyra­mide; the chang­ing ros­ter of chefs at Ar­senic; Mathieu Vian­nay at Mère Bra­zier’s old estab­lish­ment, La Mère Bra­zier.

We did man­age to take the chil­dren to La Me­u­nière, a lovely bou­chon on Rue Neuve. I was ner­vous about the cul­ture clash be­tween French gas­tro­nomic hau­teur and wrig­gly, 21st-cen­tury chil­dren, but it went with­out a hitch, in part be­cause of the kind­ness of the maître d’, and in part be­cause of the pa­tience of the two young French women who, in bou­chon style, shared our ta­ble. The kids tried the grat­tons (deep- fried pork rinds), loved the bread, sam­pled our plates of saucis­son and the con­fit of lamb shoul­der. At the end, we ex­changed friendly au revoirs with our ac­ci­den­tal com­pan­ions.

On one of our last evenings, I re­turned with my wife to Café Comp­toir Abel. There was a warm breeze as we daw­dled along the river, ad­mir­ing the view of the Basil­ica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière, and passed the old syn­a­gogue on Quai Til­sitt. I had a salad of cray­fish and slip­pery green beans, and the quenelles, and we shared ch­est­nut sor­bet with choco­late sauce. It was even bet­ter than I re­mem­bered.

In a world where food has be­come mixed up with as­pi­ra­tion, snob­bery and utopi­anism, Lyon felt like it rep­re­sented an achiev­able ideal: a place still con­nected to a culi­nary tra­di­tion that com­bines thrift and pride with ex­cel­lence and sus­tain­abil­ity. The les­son of the city is that food is a daily plea­sure to be shared. It isn’t only the chicken in the pig’s blad­der that I’ll re­mem­ber: just as me­morable were the Nutella crêpes my chil­dren de­voured most ­af­ter­noons; the snail pâté we sam­pled in the mar­ket; the hot choco­late that my son drank at break­fast and wore on his T-shirt all day. Be­tween now and our next visit, th­ese will be the meals that linger in the mem­ory; this was the food that fed our souls.

View of Rue Saint-Jean near Place Neuve Saint-Jean in the me­dieval old city

Clock­wise from top left: L’Au­berge du Pont de Col­longes; Chef Mathieu Vian­nay; veal sweet­breads fric­as­see and lob­ster with peas from La Mère Bra­zier; truf­fle soup cre­ated by Bo­cuse

Look­ing across the Saône River to­wards Fourvière Hill

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