Alexia Santamaria wishes she had more room in the gastronomic capital of France
One day and one stomach certainly isn’t enough to do justice to the delights of Lyon, known as the gastronomic capital of France.
On a recent trip on an Avalon Active & Discovery river cruise — starting in Arles and progressing up the picturesque Rhone river in France, we tasted so many delicious things in all the ports where we stopped (I’m still dreaming about the oysters in the Camargue and the trip to Valrhona Chocolate factory in Tain L’hermitage) but perhaps the most “foodie” destination of all was our final port, Lyon.
Although one of the tempting cruise excursion options was to roll our sleeves up in the kitchen with a Lyonnais chef, I opted for a walking foodie tour to let me explore some of the city at the same time.
Our charming guide met us off the ship and told us a bit about the history of French cuisine as we walked along the river towards the old town. Turns out the French weren’t always known for their culinary prowess. In fact — according to Maud — their food was actually a bit rubbish until the 16th century, when Catherine Medici came from Florence (the wife of King Henry II). She brought her Italian cooks and they combined supreme culinary knowledge with the outstanding produce of France resulting in the best culinary marriage ever. Unlike her own marriage, which was somewhat less successful — but that’s another story.
Thank goodness for Catherine, I say, because the French food right through our river cruise, and especially in Lyon, left me wanting more. Maud escorted us around the cobblestoned city to a number of eating stops, pointing out interesting facts along the way. One of the most fascinating elements of Lyon were the traboules. These secret passages (more than 300 in total, although not all accessible now) date back to Roman times but most were constructed in the 19th century as a way for silk traders to transport their wares during inclement weather.
They were also particularly helpful during World War II for those fighting in the Resistance. It was my wildest childhood dreams come true to push open secret doors and go down passages into courtyards and emerge in a totally different street. The ultimate hide and seek.
But back to the food. Lyon has everything you could dream of — from a plethora of Michelin-starred restaurants (Maud advised checking out the lunch deals, often a really reasonable way to experience these temples of haute cuisine) to bakeries and grocers selling incredible wares for just a few euro.
The story goes that in the 17th century, many talented female home cooks set up family-style food kitchens called bouchons, which you can still find all over the city. Famous chef Paul Bocuse (a multi-starred chef and a driving force in establishing Lyon as the gastronomic capital of France), trained under Eugenie Brazier, one of these famous “Meres Lyonnaises”. She was the first woman chef in France to be awarded three Michelin stars. This city isn’t mucking around when it comes to good food.
Always check for the official Bouchon de Lyon plaque when trying regional food so you know it’s the real deal. You’ll start to spot them on all the good traditional restaurants.
I managed to make my way through quite a few Lyon specialities (what can I say — I pushed through any discomfort in the name of research). Here are some “must try” foods if you are lucky enough to be passing through this part of France.
I can’t actually say the description of this dish didn’t sounded all that appetising on paper — creamed fish (sometimes combined with breadcrumbs), with a light egg binding, poached in a kind of egg shape and served with a crayfish sauce. But that all changed when it was ceremoniously delivered to my red and white checked tablecloth at Le Laurencin. The dish had a delicate mousse-like consistency and the flavours of pike and crayfish were exquisite. I thought I was too full from all the other “sampling” I’d done in the day but it was too good to consider not finishing.
I salivate just thinking back to the beautiful cheese tasting we did — all washed down with some excellent local wine. We sampled Saint Nectaire, Cabecou, Pelardon, Tome de Beaujolais and perhaps most typical of the area, Saint Marcelin and Saint Felicien, both made in the Rhône-Alpes region. The flavour of the soft, unpasteurised, mould-ripened Saint Marcelin made with local goats’ milk is not something I’m likely to forget for a long time.
Lyon is famed for all things pork — especially handmade charcuterie. The locals love their pork sausage and so did we when we tasted it. Rosette sausage, cervelas (sometimes studded with pistachio or truffle), and the famous Jesus de Lyon are all well known in this area. We loved that they are sometimes baked inside brioche — the poshest sausage roll you’ve ever tasted.
You won’t be able to miss praline in all its forms all over Lyon. The iridescent pink will catch your eye as it tries to entice you from shop windows everywhere. Studded through brioche, in pie form (warning, this is VERY sweet) and “as is” in the form of cerise-coloured sugared almonds, you can’t leave town without trying these.
I can see why the famed food critic of the time, Curnonsky, dubbed Lyon the world capital of gastronomy back in 1935, and why the city has proudly treasured that accolade and built on it over the decades. With an incredible number of restaurants per capita and population that almost-religiously reveres food traditions, it should be on any food lover’s wish list.
And once you’ve tasted all the local specialities, it’s a wonderfully walkable city through the traboules and small alleyways, past charming shopfronts and courtyards filled with people enjoying a coffee or aperitif and a chat. And definitely don’t miss the magnificent basilica at the top with its glittering mosaic interior and sweeping views of the city. If you’re lucky enough to do it with a knowledgeable guide on a gorgeous river cruise as I did, you’ll definitely love it, but it’s also a great city to explore on your own culinary treasure hunt — there’s gastronomic gold round every corner.