I Heard Lyon Wasn't All That. But That Was a Load of Tripe...
I Heard Lyon Wasn't All That. But That Was a Load of Tripe…
I recall being met with raised eyebrows when telling people my plans to visit Lyon. “Why Lyon?”, I was asked on numerous occasions, and my answer didn’t seem to lessen their curiosity. “To eat pig’s brains, obviously”
Truthfully, to eat pig’s brains would be a mild feat in Lyon. Often regarded as the gastronomical capital of the world, Lyonnais chefs would not have achieved this reputation without a certain degree of adventure. Taking this to the very extreme, let’s just say that the Lyon culinary tradition represents a clear adversity to wastage, and recognises a far wider bracket of what constitutes food than other parts of the world. If you want to truly embrace Lyonnais gastronomy, look out on menus for Bresse en vessie – a dish where chicken is cooked inside a pig’s bladder... Or what about the notoriously pungent Andouillette – a pork sausage made from chitterlings, which, to you and I, is intestines. Nothing goes to waste, meat almost featuring in everything – and don’t think ordering a salad will provide respite. Traditional Lyonnais salad is inundated with crispy lardons. Astonishingly, even as I went searching for one of my favourite French confections– the legendary macaron - I find a selection filled somewhat unnecessarily with the controversial foie gras. Lyon, to put it mildly, is a vegetarian’s nightmare.
Based on the endorsement of highly credible Jay Rayner, one evening we head to the secluded, hilly neighbourhood of Croix-Rousse. Distinct by its bohemian vibe, this district is home to the popular Le Canut et Les Gones - a take on Lyon’s classic bouchon, which are rustic establishments that celebrate traditional Lyonnaise fare, and are, unsurprisingly, very heavily meat-focused. The décor is somewhat disorientating, and as Jay Rayner also observes, there is a rather unnerving orange wallpaper going on. Everything feels confused, but in a positive way, and this nonconformist attitude seems to flow through the stand-offish staff too. We are indifferently ushered to a cramped table in the corner, but I am anything but concerned as I recount the numerous occasions where I have received lacklustre service but incredible food. My optimism is soon vindicated.
Le Canut et Les Gones offers a regularly changing, intimate menu that showcases refined Lyonnaise food at affordable prices. From stuffed beef consommé with purple basil, and an assurance of the ‘perfect’egg, to partridge served with truffles – all of chef Franck Blanc’s creations emulate high-end quality but without breaking the bank. I bypass the extensive list of foie gras heavy dishes, and go for the relatively speaking prudent option of beef tongue. Elegance is not a word you would usually associate with tongues, but like all of Blanc’s dishes, it arrived with class in abundance and was melt-in-the-mouth delicious. Needless to say, the menu is as unwelcoming to vegetarians as the rest of Lyon is. When the chef agrees to rustle up ‘assiete des legumes’ for my sister, she is justifiably suspicious of how enjoyable a plate of vegetables could be. But on closer inspection this scepticism was short-lived, and one hell of an impressive plate of vegetables turned up – showing that even out of its comfort zone Lyonnais fare can shine.
Le Canut et Les Gones epitomises Lyonnaise fare at its very finest, and suits the introverted diner looking for excellent food without too much fuss and bother. Conversely, those looking for a livelier dining experience should head to the legendary Brasserie George. Here the placid waiting staff of Le Canut et Les Gones are swapped with the dynamic staff of Brasserie George, whom, by all accounts, are witnessed running around in order to serve a frankly startling 700 guests all at once. Art deco in style, Brasserie George is bursting with character and offers diners an old-fashioned dining experience in truly grand surroundings. I sit in one of the iconic cherry-red booths and tuck into their Imperiale Sauerkraut - smoked belly and loin of pork, smoked sausages, and a knuckle of pork, of course served with cabbage. The German influence is plain, and as the room filled with the sound of skilled accordion playing, the atmosphere reminded me of the Hofbräuhaus in Munich. Brasserie George is not a quiet experience, and diners must prepare to be occasionally interrupted, and slightly irritated in my case, by intermittent dimmed lights and Happy Birthday being played through a small organ. Brasserie George is a unique experience that I shall forever hold fond memories of.
After incessantly eating out for nights on end, some food shopping was very much welcome. It was time to say goodbye to my local convenience store back home and say hello to Les Halles de Lyon – Paul Bocuse. This food market is the absolute benchmark of gastronomic greatness. Indeed, on its website Les Halles is described as a ‘Mecca of taste buds’ and a ‘mythical institution of good food’ - and these characterisations are pretty in line with the truth. Attaching 3 Michelin star chef Paul Bocuse to its name is a fitting tribute, as Bocuse was renowned for sourcing only the highest quality of ingredients. Stretching around 60 stalls, Les Halles unites bouchers, boulangeries, fromagers and many more traders all solely dedicated to the finest of ingredients. We leave with a sizeable bill, but with a generous chunk of the region’s Saint-Marcellin cheese amongst other delights to show for it. Quite the luxurious shopping experience, and the perfect place to source a posh picnic. Les Halles epitomises what Lyon is all about: food, food and more food.
I am conscious that I may have failed to convince the vast majority of people to visit Lyon. Nor am I surprised about this. After all - intestines, brains and tongues are hardly enticing, and I certainly had no inclination to embark on an offal tour of Lyon myself. It just so turns out that it’s pretty hard to avoid, and I’d urge people to leave their squeamish side at home, and try to embrace it. You may just be surprised.
To hear about another gastranomical paradise, read about Bologna’s Quadrilatero here.