Tony Bil­son vis­its the kitchens of cen­tral France for a sump­tu­ous taste of his­tory

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Indulgence -

LYONS is aptly sit­u­ated where one could imag­ine the stom­ach on the map of France. In­ter­sected by two rivers, the Rhone and the Saone, 2000 years of his­tory are also on view in its World Her­itage-listed streets and me­dieval laneways.

In the 1970s, when I first vis­ited Lyons, it was a cold, dank city, res­o­lutely cel­e­brat­ing bour­geois re­gional food and cul­ture. Fa­mous for weav­ing the finest cloths and silks, it was shrouded in win­ter chill, fogs and the in­dus­trial feel of work­ing-class Eng­land, and was still re­cov­er­ing from the trau­mas of World War II. The build­ings were black and the cathe­dral win­dows dimmed with soot from the mills. All this gloom was in stark con­trast to the lively lo­cal gas­tron­omy, led from the mid-1960s by the for­mi­da­ble Paul Bo­cuse.

As I walk through the streets of Lyons on a re­cent sum­mer visit, I dis­cover a dif­fer­ent city, one that has dis­carded its win­try cloak and put on party clothes. The won­der­ful Floren­tine ar­chi­tec­ture, with its flat­tened fa­cades and juliet bal­conies, has been cleaned and painted in pas­tel hues that re­flect pret­tily in the river.

Bor­ing in­dus­tri­al­ism has been re­placed with a sense of fun and youth, joy­ful trompe-l’oeil art dec­o­rates pub­lic spa­ces. In the quartier Sainte Foy les Lyon, a 17th-cen­tury man­sion is en­livened with paint­ings of in­hab­i­tants go­ing about their daily en­deav­ours.

A bril­liant new ini­tia­tive France has adopted from The Nether­lands makes bi­cy­cles avail­able at hun­dreds of places across Lyons. Re­turn your bike to a sta­tion within half an hour and it’s free, oth­er­wise it costs a mere ($3.30) for the day.

Place St Jean and boule­vard des Brot­teaux in Vieux Lyon — the old sec­tion of town — are alive with small restau­rants and clubs that keep the city hop­ping un­til dawn. And jazz clubs and bars cater for ev­ery taste, from the bizarre and the­atri­cal to hide­outs such as Bar le Maori for rugby trag­ics.

Valu­ing its culi­nary tra­di­tions as Lyons does, the city may not have been ex­pected to sup­port a cut­ting-edge modernist such as Ni­co­las Le Bec, but his two-star Restau­rant Ni­co­las Le Bec, in rue Grolee, is a mecca for knowl­edge­able lo­cals.

Le Bec’s modernism is tem­pered with the love of craft that marks a great restau­ra­teur and his com­bi­na­tion of wines and food as­ton­ish din­ers with their in­ven­tive­ness. Such dishes as thick slice of duck foie gras grilled and served with quince poached in the juice of red hibis­cus blos­soms, or large white pearl oys­ters lightly poached in their own juices with the added tang of ex­otic fruits and Ital­ian olive oil, mark a new di­rec­tion in French kitchens, de­void of re­gional ref­er­ences.

Lo­cal wines, from Bur­gundy and Beau­jo­lais, are ar­ti­sanal and silken, and Le Bec’s food has the clean, di­rect flavours of pro­duce freshly picked or caught.

But Bo­cuse has been the pub­lic face of Lyons for more than 30 years. Known as l’Em­pereur or M’sieu Paul, he has pro­moted the gas­tro­nomic cul­ture of his home city world­wide and be­come per­haps the world’s most fa­mous chef. The 81-year-old’s ca­reer traces a cen­tury of French cook­ing.

Bo­cuse’s par­ents owned a restau­rant on the banks of the Saone at Col­longes a Mont d’Or and as a 16-year-old he worked for Mere Bra­zier, one of the fa­mous women chefs — known as les Meres de Lyon — who ran their own restau­rants when the tra­di­tion­ally mas­cu­line pro­fes­sion suf­fered the great losses of World War I.

Later Bo­cuse worked for Fer­nand Point, then the most fa­mous chef in France, at La Pyra­mide in Vi­enne, 50km south of Lyons. At La Pyra­mide he found his metier.

‘‘ I learned rigour from Fer­nand Point,’’ says Bo­cuse, ‘‘ the im­por­tance of de­tail and the in­sis­tence on ab­so­lute qual­ity in all the foods we buy. Madame Mado Point was the heart of the restau­rant, she was very knowl­edge­able with wine and looked af­ter the guests with great style.’’

Bo­cuse re­mem­bers his time there with great gusto and is es­pe­cially care­ful to re­mind me of Mado’s role.

Many of the most fa­mous chefs of the past 50 years worked for Fer­nand and Mado Point, cre­at­ing an unas­sail­able rep­u­ta­tion for the cui­sine of this re­gion. Bo­cuse, Ge­orges Blanc, Jean and Pierre Trois­gros and Alain Chapel led the three-star charge, fol­lowed by nu­mer­ous re­gional restau­rants, in­clud­ing Leon de Lyon, Pierre Orsi, the old­fash­ioned L’Au­berge de Fond Rose, and Au­berge du Cep at Fleurie in nearby Beau­jo­lais.

The two-star La Pyra­mide is now owned by chef Pa­trick Hen­riroux and his fam­ily and, al­though the restau­rant has ex­panded and in­cludes ac­com­mo­da­tion, some mem­o­ries of Point are still here. The cel­lars once tended by the charm­ing som­me­lier Louis Thomasi are still filled with his­toric wines.

Thomasi acted as men­tor to many of Aus­tralia’s most fa­mous wine judges, in­clud­ing Len Evans and James Halliday, who re­lied on the cel­lars of La Pyra­mide for an in­tro­duc­tion to the old vin­tages of France’s great­est wines at af­ford­able prices.

The old­est wine here when I visit is a bot­tle of 1874 Chateau Lafite. It looks in good con­di­tion. And in the gar­den, a pear tree still flour­ishes on which Point tied bot­tles over the young fruit to be filled with eau de vie once the pears grew.

And what of the other pil­lars of the re­gion’s cook­ing? Philippe Jousse is at the stoves at Restau­rant Alain Chapel, with its gar­dens and pan­elled din­ing rooms, at Mion­nay, 30km east of Lyons, where he cooks the re­fined cui­sine of the re­gion of La Dombes that was Chapel’s trade­mark.

La Dombes, edg­ing Lyons to the north, is fa­mous for Bresse chicken but also for the wild har­vest of the lakes: the yab­bies, frogs and wild fowl that char­ac­terise its cui­sine.

Bourg-en-Bresse is our next stop, where we visit the 16th-cen­tury Eglise de Brou with its won­der­ful stat­ues of Philib­ert le Beau de Bour­bon and his wife Mar­guerite d’Autriche.

To the west of Bourg-en-Bresse, at Von­nas, we find the three-star Restau­rant Ge­orges Blanc. Von­nas is of­fi­cially France’s pret­ti­est vil­lage, its streets a fes­ti­val of flow­ers. The cook­ing team chez Blanc in­cludes Blanc’s sons Fred­eric and Alexandre, and the food is sub­lime, so­phis­ti­cated and lux­u­ri­ous. Once called Chez Mere Blanc and a tem­ple to re­gional food, the restau­rant was then owned by Blanc’s par­ents; his mother was one of the famed Meres de Lyon.

Blanc is the liv­ing em­bod­i­ment and cu­ra­tor of the lo­cal cul­ture in a way that is not seen out­side France. One of his roles is to be pres­i­dent of the lo­cal so­ci­ety for the preser­va­tion of the Bresse chicken and, of course, the fa­mous bird — ev­ery bit of it ex­cept the feath­ers — fea­tures in dishes on the restau­rant’s menu. The menu is ac­com­pa­nied by a beau­ti­fully struc­tured, en­cy­clo­pe­dic wine list that is a les­son to all bud­ding som­me­liers.

As we ar­rive at Restau­rant Ge­orges Blanc, we pass the kitchen win­dows and my guests gasp at the won­der of see­ing a three-star kitchen in full flight. To think that the ex­treme del­i­cacy of the brouil­lade of frog’s legs is cre­ated in this testos­terone-filled en­vi­ron­ment changes the mean­ing of mas­cu­line.

But Bo­cuse re­mains the bas­tion of the Ly­on­naise culi­nary cul­ture. When we orig­i­nally vis­ited his restau­rant, L’Au­berge du Pont de Col­longes in Lyon, and he talked of his time chez Point, he pre­pared for us a dish of fil­lets of sole with fresh pasta as it was cooked 50 years ago. The fish was per­fectly cooked, the fil­lets sep­a­rated by rib­bons of fresh pasta and napped with sabayon, a light foamy hol­landaise whisked with the cook­ing juices of the sole, and fin­ished un­der the sala­man­der.

Great food, like great wine, is be­yond fash­ion and to eat at Bo­cuse is not just a his­tory les­son but an ex­pe­ri­ence that crosses gen­er­a­tions and gives the diner in­sights into the ori­gins of con­tem­po­rary cui­sine. At the end of that night, the boys from Bo­cuse’s kitchen trooped down to neigh­bour­ing Cafe le Maori, rugby trag­ics one and all. Tony Bil­son was a guest of Air France and Re­nault Euro­drive­lais­­­lasle­ www.georges­ www.pierre­­nault-euro­

Pic­tures: Oliver Strewe

Lion of Lyons: Paul Bo­cuse (left) and Tony Bil­son, main pic­ture; Bo­cuse’s L’Au­berge du Pont de Col­longes, in Lyons, top and bot­tom right

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