Lyon's share of foodie heaven

 

Paris may have the upper hand in Michelin stars, but Lyon is a gastronomic heaven, with food at its very soul, writes HUGO ARNOLD

TWO MAJOR rivers helped, the house facades in their pale pinkness certainly attracted, and the autumn light undoubtedly had its part to play. But why was I so smitten by Lyon? The city’s size is decidedly get-to-know-you, but that didn’t exactly explain why a short break made me desperately want to return. Many cities have it all, but Lyon somehow seems to have everything in such perfect proportion.

We had picked it because of the food. Paris may have the upper hand in Michelin stars but Lyon is a gastronomic heaven. Paul Bocuse has traditionally held sway over the city but things are changing. And as for the bouchons, the famed traditional working-class eateries serving popular food at reasonable prices, you could be forgiven for thinking there are hundreds, as the city’s awnings might suggest, but according to the Association for the Protection of Lyonnaise Bouchons, there are now only 12.

Food is at the soul of Lyon and nowhere is this more true than in its provision of markets. Here is gastronomic Christmas shopping for the true food lover. Les Halles is the large central market and well worth a visit, but we climbed instead to the market running along Boulevard de la Croix-Rousse. Take your pick from fresh cheeses and charcuterie to dried mushrooms and strings of garlic pink with attitude. And the prices? They would make you weep.

You end up at the Fort St Laurent with stunning views out over the Rhone before snaking down through the narrow and often pedestrianised streets, which were once home to the French resistance and now sport small designer shops.

Or try the market which stretches along Quai St-Antoine. Here the backdrop of the Saone is as dramatic as it is soothing. Oysters for breakfast anyone? This market starts at 4am when the real business is done with the city’s chefs, but 8am is fine for normal shopping. We bought beeswax candles, garlic (there were five to choose from, all identified by their keeping qualities), honey sweets and Rosette de Lyon (a mild pork saucisson) and were so focused on our shopping we omitted to clock the Lyon marathon which, by the time we had finished shopping, had locked us into the inside as thousands of runners crossed the Saone by La Feuille bridge and then came back along the river.

LYON IS AN easy city to navigate, despite the curling calming confluence of the Saone and Rhone rivers that inform so much of the city’s life. Start in the east and work your way westwards and you run from Gaul to Roman, medieval to Renaissance, 19th-century boulevards to . . . well, to 20th-century sprawl. We chose instead to marvel at the mastery of Jean Nouvel’s 1993 reworking of the Lyon Opera, which with true French style, capped the original building with a stunning dome and dug down in search of space.

From here you can head south into the main shopping area with its mixture of small, classy side streets, the odd square and long avenues. Like any major city, there are swathes of high street but distances are small and distractions numerous. To the south Place Bellecour – the largest square in Europe – is almost too big and we headed instead back to the old city and the delights of St Jean overlooked by the stunning Notre Dame Basilica.

Our gastronomic tour started on Friday night with dinner at the La Mère Brazier. This was the home of Eugénie Brazier, the first female chef to win three Michelin stars. She features in Elizabeth David’s An Omelette and a Glass of Wine and is described as a chef of modesty and understatement. Quite something in our new world ways of celebrity chefs and everything but modesty.

In October 2008, the Michelin-starred Mathieu Viannay bought La Mère Brazier and while I am unable to compare the two, his style seemed very much in keeping. The Menu Classique sported a foie gras and artichoke combination that worked a treat, a cassolette of langoustines that was rich and earthy with its absinthe flavoured bisque , a supreme de volaille which was elegant in its simplicity and the perfect partner to generous shavings of black truffle, impeccable cheeses as you would expect, and some cracking desserts topped by the souffle. The room is tiled, largely in white but with art deco coloured features complemented by glass cabinets full of interesting food-related antiques.

Breakfast the next day was taken on the hoof, fruit bought from market stalls and eaten as we walked, coffee grabbed at one of the numerous cafes. Saturday lunch was at the famed Rue Le Bec. Nicholas Le Bec is the rising star of Lyon, indeed some would say of France. Originally from Brittany, he has made his home in Lyon and is breaking, successfully, with tradition in an inspired and intelligent way.

The roast wild cepes with a veal and poached garlic sauce was a mastery of balance, the earthiness of the cepes complemented by the jus to make something at once meaty and light. The cocotte de jous de cochon braises, carottes des sables aux quatre epices was sheer piggy heaven. Intense, elegant and almost graceful. Mindful of dinner we skipped cheese (a mistake) and shared a dessert (an even bigger mistake). La fine tartelette au caramel mou, noisettes au sucre, confiture de lait glacé came sporting two shards of dangerously long spun-sugar spears and delivered complexity in every skilled spoonful. I’d like to say we skipped lightly out into the sunshine. It certainly felt that way.

FOR ALL THE international guides to Lyon, the gastronomic inside track is to be found in the excellent pocket-sized Lyon Gourmand (published by Editons Lyon Gourmand, 78 Avenue Jean Jaures). This is a tip handed on by the excellent Francois Mequinion, concierge at Cour des Loges.

We walked and walked that afternoon in preparation for dinner at La Meunière which was everything and more I had expected a bouchon to be. French to its core, right down to the owners Francoise and Jean- Louis Celin, the latter sporting handlebar moustache, ample belly and nose-perching glasses.

We ate salad Lyonnaise, pate and charcuterie, we ate black pudding with apples, we ate pretty much every part of the pig you can dress in mustardy mayonnaise. We ate chicken cooked in vinegar and then I ate tripe, not as I have had it so many times before in a tomato or milk sauce, but breadcrumbed and fried to a crispness and served with sauce gribiche. It was a smooth, silky, milky delight. The only way to finish was a glass of plum armangnac.

Our final lunch was on the shaded terrace of the Café Epicerie of the Cour des Loges. Here starters come in verrines, those wire-topped jars and everything else is grilled. The bargain is a €15 offer of verrine (€5 supplement for the foie gras), salad and dessert.

Two food shops not to be missed in addition to the markets are Bouillet and Didier Galland. The former is an impressive chocolatier with five outlets in Lyon and one in Tokyo (choc olatier-bouillet.com), the latter is a maître fromager with a stunning shop in rue d’Austerlitz.

Where to stay and where to eat in Lyon

Where to stay

Cour des Loges. 2-8 Rue du Boeuf, 00-33-472-774444. Steeped in history (we’re talking 14th century) this hotel is bang in the middle of St Jean. While rooms are quite dark, looking out on the narrow streets, the internal courtyard is a dream and you’ll feel close to history.

Grand Hotel des Terreaux. 16 rue Lanterne, 00-33-478-270410. Closer to the Saone than the Rhone and in the modern part of the city.

College Hotel. 5 Place St Paul, 00-33-472-100505. Another option in the old town, this time overtly themed on the original building. Expect schoolbooks and lockers but thankfully no classrooms or lessons.

Mercure Lyon Grand Hotel Saxe Lafayette. 29 Rue de Bonnel, 00-33-472-619090. A little outside of the centre and large but good value.

Boscolo Grand Hotel. 11 Rue Grolée, 00-33-472-404545. Down in the shopping area of town and part of the European Boscolo group.

Where to eat

La Mère Brazier. 12 Rue Royale, 00-33-478-231720. Understated charm but with real intent.

Rue Le Bec. 43 Quai Rambaud, 00-33-478-928787. Highly focused, very modern but delivered in a relaxed and easy manner. Don’t skip on dessert.

La Meunière. 11 Rue Neuve, 00-33-478-286291. Real gutsy French cooking in the old style. Prepare.

Café Épicerie. Cours des Loges, 2, 4, 6, 8 Rue du Boeuf. 00-33-472-774444. The food is marked by simplicity and attention to detail, and all the better for that. The terrace is a delight in good weather.

Chez Hugon. 12 Rue Pizay, 00-33-478-281094. Another true bouchon and one to work up an appetite for.

Go there

Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com) flies from Dublin to Lyon