France: Savour the best of Lyon

By Deborah Telford

Lyon's famous food has to be tasted to be believed, writes Deborah Telford.

Lyon's position on the convergence of the Saone and Rhone rivers makes it a central crossroad for fine food from all over Europe. Photo / Thinkstock
Lyon's position on the convergence of the Saone and Rhone rivers makes it a central crossroad for fine food from all over Europe. Photo / Thinkstock

When you die and go to food heaven, you wake up in Lyon's famous food markets.
At least I plan to.

The famous Les Halles de Lyon - Paul Bocuse (renamed in 2011 after Lyon's even more famous three Michelin-star chef) are the heart and belly of France's gastronomic capital where eating good food has been a way of life for more than 200 years.

Lyon's food obsession can be partly attributed to its position at the convergence of the Saone and the Rhone rivers which make this beautiful Renaissance city a central crossroads for fine produce from all over France and Europe.

The markets date back to 1859, more than two centuries before Bocuse, now 87, took the culinary world by storm with his innovative style of cooking which favoured high-quality, fresh ingredients over calories and cream and helped to democratise haut cuisine.

You can't read about Lyon without reading about Bocuse. Almost every food institution there is named after him, he owns a string of esteemed restaurants and Lyon's biennial, Olympic-style cook-off between the world's best chefs is called the Bocuse d'Or.

So when our French guide led us into his hallowed Halles, I wondered whether the food could possibly live up to all the spin I'd been spoon-fed.

In a word, oui.

The spic and span indoor markets run east to west over two streets of the Part-Dieu district of Lyon's third arrondissement, not far from Europe's biggest shopping mall.

Six days a week, about 60 merchants and artisans here sell France's finest wine and food - much of it carrying the Government's prestigious AOC (appellation d'origine controlee) certification which values the unique qualities of the area or "terroir" where it is produced.

Chickens from Bresse, prunes from Agen, pepper from Espelette, honey from Corsica and salt marsh lamb from the Somme are just some of the AOC-rated foods you can buy.

Getting to the markets is an easy trip by bus or on the equally efficient metro system in this liveable city. Or, if you want to burn a few calories before you indulge, you can hire one of the cheap and popular Velo'V bicycles from one of many pick up points around the city.

Food prices at Les Halles are not cheap, but the quality is guaranteed.

As well as hearty Lyonnaise fare such as saucisson, cured meats, roast pork and blood sausages that are also served at the city's traditional bouchons, you can shop, with the locals and Lyon's chefs, for the freshest fruit, vegetables, meat and seafood.

Along with a staggering range of pastries, bread, cakes and chocolates are all sorts of ready to cook or eat foods including paella, tartes and gourmet salads such as the Lyon classic lentil salad with lardons, raw sweet onion and cervalas (pork sausage).

Creamy quenelles - a masterly, souffle-like rendition of pike made by whipping the fish with flour, egg-white and butter over a bowl of ice - are sold ready to bake with bechamel sauce.

You can tell how good a quenelle is by how much it expands when cooked - the fatter it gets, the better it tastes and the fewer you need to eat, explains our svelte, 50-something Lyonnaise guide.

Which might partly answer my question about why, despite their obsession with food, the Lyonnaise don't seem to get fat?

"If you would look at one of our menus from the beginning of the 20th century, you would have fear," she explains.

"But we are not eating as much as we used to. The rule of Bocuse is to eat according to the seasons. Our rule is also to eat at meal times, not in between, and to walk a lot."

Walking up and down the aisles of Les Halles, you pass chocolatiers selling exquisite handmade creations in flavours ranging from liquorice ganache and kumquat coulis to thyme praline. Anyone for fois gras macarons?

French dragees, the sugar-coated chocolate and almonds traditionally given to guests at weddings and baptisms, come in a kaleidoscope of colours, but nothing beats the shocking pink of the famous Lyonnaise tarte a la praline you can buy at a shop called Bahadourian, which also specialises Armenian, Arabian and Oriental delicacies.

"It is very sweet. You will only take a small slice - with some vanilla icecream."

Followed perhaps by just a sliver of one of the hundreds of French cheeses there are to choose from including Lyon's chevres and other white varieties, like a creamy St Marcellin marinated in white wine.

Or some cervelle de canut, which means "silk worker's brain". Nothing to do with offal, this soft white cheese seasoned with herbs, shallots, salt, pepper and olive oil is named after the workers who for centuries were the backbone of Lyon's lucrative silk weaving industry.

Tiny rounds of cheese called boutons des culottes, "trouser buttons", are popular with children and as an "aperitif" - a word I realise after a month in France, simply means "something delicious that you eat or drink before you eat or drink something else delicious".

Les Halles also has several excellent restaurants for all budgets, including the popular Ecailler Cellerier seafood and oyster bar.

"Oysters without white wine are not oysters," explains our guide. "We like to take them, at 11am, as an aperitif." Safely installed by 11.15am at the oyster bar's only free table, we wait smugly, as the queue grows outside, for our 12 fat Normandy oysters and pot of chablis to arrive.

At $80 it is not cheap. But it is delicious.

IF YOU GO

Where to Stay: Hotel le Royal, 20 Place Bellecour, 69002 Lyon. This boutique hotel, in Lyon's main Place Bellecour square, between the Rhone and the Saone rivers, lives up to its name as a grand but friendly family residence.

Further information: See en.lyon-france.com.

Deborah Telford flew to France with Emirates, which flies five times a week from Dubai to Lyon with connections to its New Zealand services. The airline also flies to Paris and Nice. She was a guest of Only Lyon Tourism.

- Herald on Sunday

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