The kings of Lyon

The bou­chons of France’s Rhone-alpes re­gion serve up the flavour of times past

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - The Global Gourmet Issue - JU­DITH ELEN

LYON, be­tween Bur­gundy and Provence in France’s east­erly Rhone-Alpes re­gion, is a bas­tion of tra­di­tion. Its old neigh­bour­hoods pre­serve relics of the past, from les guig­nols (white-faced mar­i­onettes painted on shop win­dows, an em­blem of Lyon) to the city’s time-hon­oured kitchen skills.

Once, les meres ly­on­naises ruled the roost. Domestic cooks who were re­leased from house­holds in a chang­ing 19th-cen­tury world, th­ese ‘‘moth­ers of Lyon’’ ran their own restau­rants, blend­ing mid­dle-class cook­ing with the work­ing-class fare of the bou­chons. That fu­sion marks Ly­on­naise cui­sine and has never been lost.

The city’s bou­chons, how­ever, are an even older tra­di­tion. Bolt­holes for work­ers and mer­chants, they of­fered sus­te­nance out­side nor­mal meal times. The word means stop­per or cork; to bou­chon­ner is to rub down (a horse with straw, for ex­am­ple). A bun­dle of straw tied above the door was the sign.

When Lyon’s silk trade flour­ished, mer­chants and coach drivers re­paired to th­ese small eater­ies to re­fresh them­selves and their horses. Silk work­ers, up at 4am, came for break­fast bowls of clapo­ton (lambs’ feet), lentils and rus­tic char­cu­terie with jugs of wine.

Th­ese days, Lyon is known for its Miche­lin-starred restau­rants and its vast mar­ket, Les Halles de Lyon, ‘‘where the pro­duce is king’’, and leg­endary chef Paul Bo­cuse is now le pere ly­on­nais. The mar­ket’s pro­duce in­cludes white-truf­fle mac­arons, pi­geons in pas­try, foie gras, pigs’ trot­ters in jelly, snails, cheeses and glossy lip­stick-pink tarte a la praline. But rus­tic bou­chons, serv­ing tra­di­tional Ly­on­nais dishes, re­tain a time-hon­oured place for lo­cals and vis­i­tors.

Le Cafe des Fed­er­a­tions — it says ‘‘ Mai­son fondee ici depuis bien longtemps (Here for a very long time)’’ on the door — is in an or­di­nary back­street two blocks east of the River Saone and not far from the Musee des Beaux-Arts de Lyon.

Amid tim­ber-pan­elled walls, arched win­dows half-cur­tained in red-and­white checks and coats hang­ing on old­fash­ioned wall pegs, we set­tle into our leather-backed ban­quette and ab­sorb the buzz of con­fer­ring hun­gry din­ers. Here, the pig is king, stand­ing on the bar, wo­ven into the

PIC­TURES: JU­DITH ELEN pink-and-white towel-sized ta­ble nap­kins and em­bossed on the thick-bot­tomed wine and water bot­tles.

Owner Yves Rivo­iron, a mem­ber of L’As­so­ci­a­tion de De­fense des Bou­chons Ly­on­nais, is up to his armpits in what looks like a hes­sian sack with leather shoul­der braces, his face wrapped in a broad smile. We or­der red and white wines from his vine­yard, de­canted into Cafe des Fed­er­a­tions bot­tles. In the old days, elas­tic bands around the bot­tle necks distin­guished the un­la­belled Beau­jo­lais from Cotes du Rhone.

Aset menu starts with Ly­on­nais char­cu­terie and a mise en bouche of poached egg in a lit­tle white bowl of red wine broth. In our group with di­verse tastes, we try just about ev­ery main course. Braised pork cheeks come dark and invit­ing, straight from the oven, in a bat­tered red-enamel cast-iron saucepan; my­black pud­ding with ap­ple is earthy and sweet; calf’s head comes boned, rolled, tied and pars­ley-strewn, with a tiny white pot of rav­ig­ote sauce stand­ing on the plate be­side steamed potato halves; and a glossy, caramel-coloured sauce naps the tra­di­tional chicken with vine­gar.

Six gor­geous cheeses fol­low, then a dessert plate of lit­tle choco­late pud­dings, praline tart and pre­served fruit. Food for the work­ers.

Ju­dith Elen was a guest of Rail Europe.

above Cafe des Fed­er­a­tions be­low Egg in wine broth

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