ALL ROADS LEAD TO LYONS
Tony Bilson visits the kitchens of central France for a sumptuous taste of history
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 Eurodrive www.relaischateau.com www.bocuse.fr www.nicolaslebec.com www.georgesblanc.com www.pierreorsi.com www.airfrance.com.au www.renault-eurodrive.com
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