By Samantha Mangino
If you’re visiting France and love food, you go to Lyon. The city itself doesn’t grab the attention of those searching for the latest trends to post on social media. The food of Lyon lacks an eye-catching aesthetic as boiled tripe doesn’t have an outward visual appeal. The Lyonnaise feel no need to change, since their food is meant to serve those who proudly reside there. The Lyonnaise work hard. The food has to work harder, making the food like the people: hearty, rustic and hospitable.
Nestled in the intersection of the Rhône and Saône rivers, the region provides the city a bounty of ingredients necessary to creating an exceptional dining experience. The Lyonnaise do not all live in the heart of the city, as many dwell on farms just miles away. Those individuals cultivate a harvest with a great bounty of duck, rabbit, chicken, and beef which will garnish plates in every form one could dream of devouring. Decorating the city streets are long-running establishments of casual and fine dining, all of which have contributed to Lyon’s culinary reputation. There are the sophisticated and historic “Mère” restaurants opened by the female chefs who raised the bar for culinary performance, and as a result, are responsible for the city’s esteem. While those eateries provide some of the greatest fine dining in France, the heart of Lyonnaise culture is in their neighborhood restaurant: the bouchon.
The word bouchon itself has come to have two meanings. The first is a bottle stopper or cork, an ironic name considering the flow of wine can’t be stopped at a bouchon. Instead, a less likely known origin is that bouchon refers to a bundle of straw. A picture of said image would appear on bouchons as a way to usher in silk workers passing through Lyon (just as the green cross marks pharmacies throughout Europe). A bundle of straw was the Lyonnaise symbol of a place to stop in and be served something satisfying. From the beginning, the meals being turned out at bouchons were for the workers not the bourgeoisie.
When you walk into a bouchon, you not only recognize the owner but are greeted with a pat on the back and your glass is instantly full of Beaujolais wine. Plainly decorated beyond the paper tablecloths over red and white checked linen, the paint on the wall is chipped and the lighting falls warm and low. The food goes from pan to plate with little accessory, maybe a slice of lemon or sprig of parsley; it is presented without pretense. The refined celebrity of the food you’ll find in Paris is not accepted by Lyonnaise cuisine which instead has rougher edges, and fully embraces the offerings of the surrounding region.
When ordering, there isn’t much to be debated. You get everything you see on the menu, and it is to be eaten with everyone at the table; not just getting a bite here or there, but receiving heaping spoonfuls. Meals may begin “lightly” with the house terrine serving up layers of duck, rabbit, and chicken. It’ll include every part of the roast duck that you won’t see when served later on. Once you’ve finished the terrine, you’ll quickly move onto the paté wrapped in pastry. Other plates will follow: There could be fried tripe or a poached veal head. There will definitely be St-Marcellin cheese and cassoulet, the latter a warm dish you want to enjoy on your travels through Lyon during a break from your daily work. Confit duck with sausage and beans are slow simmered until the silken casserole comes to the table ready to be eaten between sips of wine. The sausage in the cassoulet will be made by the family who’s been making fine charcuterie for as long as cassoulet has been on the menu. The bouchon welcomes not only a collection of the locals who serve as patrons, but it celebrates the fine work that goes on at the charcuterie shop a few blocks down the road and the patisserie a few further. It takes a village to raise a child, and a city to breed a culinary reputation.
The bouchon carries on the everyday dining experience in Lyon. While they are able to emphasize the food of the people, it is the mothers of Lyon who exposed to the world the exquisite cuisine of which the region was capable. Cuisine Lyonnaise may have no secrets, except the women that mothered it. These women, the “mères” of Lyon, kick whatever antiquated idea of women in the kitchen out the door. The women chefs came from backgrounds in cooking for upper-middle class families who left their posts to open restaurants. Motivation to serve the best food came from the Michelin Guide. While Lyon was already at a crossing point between the North and South of France, a Michelin rating could make a travelers pause in their journey just for a meal. The women opened restaurants eponymously always beginning with “Mère” taking pride in the matriarchy raising an elevated level of cuisine. The Mères were different from Bouchons in their more refined quality, but neither was trying to outshine the other; both coexist as equally significant in the scheme of Lyonnaise cuisine.
When you discuss the Mères, you have to remember Eugenie Brazier, a pioneer of the cuisine coming out of the Mères; a strong woman who stood in a short-sleeve, white button-up, starched and pressed, with a white apron behind the stove of her restaurant. Her hair is pulled back into a bun, and not only did she cook at her restaurant La Mère Brazier, but she also took the time to step out and greet guests. It was her space, and she proudly would meet the guests who would travel from far and away to eat the food prepared by the first Michelin six-star chef. She would serve famous guests such as Charles de Gaulle and Marlene Dietrich her renowned dishes such as her poulet demi-deuill: black truffles placed under the chicken of a Bresse chicken, which is then roasted.
Eugenie Brazier never was out for the fame. Her love was in her food and she hoped to instill that in others. A line of French chefs began their education with Brazier. One of those young chefs was Paul Bocuse, the now idolized patriarch of French cuisine. He may have never received the esteem of the culinary world without the education he got with Brazier, a woman whose thundering yells which knocked him off his feet still give Bocuse nightmares. The tough love Brazier bestowed on Bocuse lives on as he still has the chefs in his kitchen tucking black truffles under the skin of a Bresse chicken. By serving the Bresse chicken the same way his mentor had taught him to prepare it, Bocuse is paying respect to the chef who established the foundations of his career. While it isn’t Brazier’s fame that’s being highlighted, it’s respect to the history and tradition the Lyonnaise care so deeply for.
Most brilliantly Brazier wrote in her part cookbook-part memoir: “‘I have met and conversed with many intellectuals, sophisticates, and I have always been mindful of who I am.’” The celebrity of her restaurant was distinctly separated from Brazier herself. The lack of recognition unfortunately allows Brazier’s achievement to go forgotten. With her restaurants based on Rue Royale in Lyon and another miles into the country outside of Lyon, Brazier became the first French chef to hold two, three-star Michelin restaurants at the same time. In 1998, the title of “First Six-Star Chef” briefly was given to Alain Ducasse in the New York Times after he had earned the same accolade as Brazier had 60 years earlier. While a correction was issued in the Times, the mistake stood for the erasure of the mères despite their establishments and influence still coursing through the veins of Lyon. However, fame can only last so long. And the Lyonnaise are more concerned with paying respect to tradition.
The menus you’ll come across in Lyon have been refined to what the people want. It’s the tradition of the cuisine and the comfort of the establishments that keep the community supporting the bouchon and lifting up the esteem of the fine-dining Mères. The quenelles de brochet, a dish not easily replicated, consisting of a pike dumpling baked in a crayfish sauce, is a luxury served since the silk workers first began stopping into bouchons. It’s still served on menus and the quality never falters because to do so would be dishonoring the history of the dish. The food and chefs which have garnered fame in the city can be credited to the respect the Lyonnaise have had for preserving tradition through food.
The title of gastronomic capital of France is taken by Lyon as the individuals cooking the food they wanted to see and showed the rest of the world it was worth tasting. Hearty and rustic are easy to see in Lyonnaise cuisine, but if you look closer, there is confidence and grace in each dish served. Lyonnaise cuisine lives undisturbed in its traditions of the bouchon which will continue to welcome guests as long as they keep coming. Everything you want to know, and everything the people of Lyon have to tell you will be on plates delivered to the table. The only secret of Lyon is that it’s a culinary treasure along the Rhone. Once you find it, there is nothing left to hide.