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