Postcard from … Lyon

It felt pretty good to be sitting at a table at lunchtime in the ‘Halles de Lyon – Paul Bocuse’ market with a couple of friends, wolfing down oysters, boiled crab with mayonnaise and crevettes grises washed down with lots of cold Muscadet. There was a nagging concern, though – had we left any room for dinner? Fortunately a lady eating at an adjacent table offered us this helpful advice: “Don’t worry, good food digests itself.”

The market, redeveloped in the mid-noughties, has around 60 traders and is a glass and steel shrine to good food. Fantastic produce, seafood, charcuterie, cheese, chocolate and patisserie are available to eat on the spot or take home, along with the best wines from nearby Beaujolais and the Rhone valley. One establishment offers only truffle-related foods, you can sit down and enjoy a truffle-studded lobster or get a more humble truffle and cheese sandwich ‘to go’.

Considering how crazy the Lyonnais are about food, it’s surprising that the city hasn’t been more of a destination for hungry visitors. It remains somewhat off the beaten tourist track with the locals mostly happy to keep their city’s gastronomic delights to themselves. Les Halles market may be helping to change all that, judging by some of its international clientele. But locals are more likely to shop at some of the city’s other markets, such as the one that stretches daily along the Quai St Antoine. There you’ll find a huge variety of more affordable produce of excellent quality, along with what seems like thousands of spit-roasting chickens.

Lyon is blessed with around 2,000 eating establishments, many known as ‘bouchons’. The bouchon is a type of establishment unique to Lyon, of which there is no direct English translation, so let’s call it a modest restaurant / bar / cafe serving a range of local specialities. There are loads of them, most offer excelllent food at bargain basement prices. It’s worth wandering around and stopping at the ones you like the look of. The bars are great, too. At Bar Contretemps, a tiny place which ten punters could easily pack out, the friendly owner Gérard took us through his excellent selection of white wines and produced a box of top quality Fine de Claire oysters, which he shucked and we scoffed. When we left, we were waved away like old friends.

When booking the trip, the big question was whether to eat at L’Auberge du Pont du Collonges, Lyon’s three Michelin star restaurant since 1965, owned and overseen by chef Paul Bocuse. ‘Legendary’ is a much overused word these days, but in this case appropriate for a man in his 80′s recently named ‘Chef of the 20th Century’. That’s not to say we weren’t concerned that the restaurant would be something of an anticlimax, a kitsch culinary museum, past its prime and hideously expensive to boot. But we decided to keep the faith, booked a table and got to shake M. Bocuse’s hand on arrival. He doesn’t cook anymore but oversees the place, meeting and greeting most of his customers.

I think it was the third course of the ‘Menu Bougeois’ that did the most damage. Three of us shared two huge ribs of veal with veal kidneys, a mountain of fresh ceps and turned vegetables, served with a perfect veal stock reduction. It could probably have fed six. But we manfully finished the lot, chewed the bones, then got stuck into an enormous cheeseboard, followed by four trolleys’ worth of desserts. The service was so good that the waiters actually made me believe I speak good French. It was a truly unique meal, a fantastic experience and highly recommended, with not a drop of liquid nitrogen, foam or an edible petal in sight.

Lunch at a bouchon the following day was a more modest affair; a three course set menu for 11 Euros that consisted of Lyonnais sausage with red wine sauce, tete de veau and a plate of the local Saint-Marcellin cheese. In its way, it was just as enjoyable as the previous night’s blowout. It proved that you can’t go too far wrong in Lyon. Just eat and drink and let the food se digeste.

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