I first 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 flag-waving, 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, blue-legged 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.
TRAVEL & LEISURE (NOVEMBER 2014) © 2014 BY MARCEL THEROUX. WWW.TRAVELANDLEISURE.COM